The size of the tuition fees charged by a university and its overseas marketing efforts appear to have little impact on the number of international students who apply, a new study says.
For the research, two economists at Lancaster University looked at application figures from 97 UK universities over the five years between 2002 and 2007. The analysis focused on undergraduate courses in business and engineering, which are the most popular fields with overseas students.
Some of its results were surprising. On fees, it found that those institutions that charged more in fees received more applications, a trend that appears to contradict standard demand theory.
The study says: "The fee charged by universities is never a statistically significant determinant of the number of applications for any group of students."
Offering several explanations for the correlation, it adds: "It may simply be that, having decided to incur the expense of going to the UK for higher education, the difference in fees across universities plays little role in students' decision-making process."
A second key finding of the study, produced by Kwok Tong Soo and Caroline Elliott of Lancaster's Management School, is that international marketing activities, indicated by attendance at British Council education fairs overseas, also seem to make little difference to application numbers.
By contrast, students were found to be more influenced by rankings and league tables.
The researchers also found evidence that applicants were swayed by a university's proximity to London. This supports the findings of the British Council itself, which were highlighted in a recent Times Higher Education conference on globalisation.
Pat Killingley, the council's director of educational services, said research suggested that location was an increasingly important factor.
"Students are really beginning to change quite substantially in what they are looking for," she said. "It is now about the whole experience, about what their peers will think of them, and what is a good country or city to go to.
"You start to get comments from people in Shanghai who say: 'London is a happening place, this is where it is at.' These experience-seekers are a growing group."
The Lancaster study also considered the significance of other variables, including a university's proximity to a Premier League football club, whether it is a member of a mission group, its age, the presence of a medical school and climate variables, but all were found to be statistically insignificant.