Students putting the final touches to their Ucas forms are more likely to be impressed by the intellectual standing of a university than a highly rated party scene or cheap beer.
A survey of more than 8,000 new undergraduates from 12 universities in both the new and the old sectors was conducted by academics from Sheffield Hallam University to understand how applicants choose between universities and, in particular, which factors outside academic excellence are most likely to influence their choice.
If Price, of the facilities management centre at SHU, said it was increasingly difficult for university applicants to differentiate between institutions, many of which were failing to establish a strong brand: "We are rapidly entering an era where every university has a more or less equal library, they offer similar courses and provide their students with computers," Professor Price said.
"These are the vital must-haves. For those institutions not fortunate enough to have established a strong reputation akin to the Wills effect in St Andrews, then we are seeing the growing importance of the next level of differentiators - how students rate the importance of well-kept grounds or higher-quality accommodation, for example."
The survey asked students to rank 87 factors, from the price of food in refectories to the quality of lecture theatres and teaching reputation. The top factor was the availability of the chosen course, which was followed closely by the number of computers on campus and the quality of library facilities. Respondents were more interested in an institution's teaching reputation than its social facilities.
The survey concludes that once the academic "must-haves" such as excellent teaching and learning facilities are excluded from the equation, the physical environment of the university is an important factor in the students' decision-making process.
This was most marked, said Professor Price, in universities that had not established a strong research reputation or other recognisable brand: "It is the other items, especially facilities and estates factors, that can often differentiate a particular institution and have an impact on the student's academic achievement, satisfaction and persistence with the institution."