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What should you look for in a university?

Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The latest Which? University annual student survey has found that northern universities are best for nightlife, while those in the south led the ratings for their political scenes. 

It’s been 20 years since I graduated from the University of Leeds and set off on a career that would lead me to becoming Head of Campaigns at Which?.

Despite two decades living and working in London, where I’ve had the good fortune to work for Members of Parliament, pressure groups, government agencies, charities and now Which?, it was Leeds Uni – and particularly the student union – that kicked it all off.

In 1997, I was elected for a year as a sabbatical officer at Leeds University Union, so it’s great to see that in our latest annual student survey, Leeds is rated as one of the top unis for student union activities.

University experience

Of course, when you go to university, getting a good degree with first-class teaching is vital – particularly when students face tuition fees of £9k a year.

But when choosing a place to study, many students will often be looking for a lot more than the best place to do medicine – or History and Politics, in my case.

The opportunity to live away from home – perhaps experiencing life in a big city for the first time – and to get involved in sports clubs, societies or student politics is a big part of the experience.

Yes, the nightlife is important for some. And as someone who spent a good amount of time at the best club nights that Leeds had to offer in the mid-1990s, I’m glad that northern universities still top the polls for students who want to let their hair down between lectures and tutorials.

Student union

But for me, the student union was always the draw. Not only for cheap beer in Leeds Union’s infamous Old Bar, but also for the opportunity to get involved in trying to make the university and the union a better place.

So to get elected onto the union executive in my final year and to get paid to represent students and to run services for them was a real privilege.

And crucially, an important lesson. It gave me my first experience of seeing how a business is run. I was responsible for all of the union’s services; its shops, bars and its building. The union had a healthy turnover and it was a big responsibility to make sure that we continued to deliver a sustainable business.

I also got to experience campaigning at first-hand in a whole range of new ways.

Disability groups rightly put pressure on me to make the union building more accessible. Environmental groups argued with me to make sure that we had vegan beer on tap.

We led hundreds of students in a 24-hour occupation of one of the lecture theatres. We took buses of students down to London to go on marches against tuition fees. And I visited the Houses of Parliament for the first time to lobby our local MPs.

It was on one of these visits to Parliament that I decided I wanted to become a campaigner. And 20 years later, I still get to go and meet with Ministers and MPs (including a fellow student officer, who is now the MP for Leeds North West) – although now it’s about pressing them to tackle energy bills or broadband or scams.

So as teenagers taking their A-levels start to consider whether they want to go to uni and what the best option for them would be, I’d definitely recommend looking at our survey.

Getting a good degree matters, but university is about so much more than that.

What should you look for in a university? Are the extracurricular activities as important as the courses on offer or the university’s reputation?

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