In a survey of more than 1,200 sixth-formers and gap-year students conducted by the student accommodation firm Unite, 51.9 per cent said that interest in a subject was the main reason for their applying to university.
That compared with 24.7 per cent who said that they were entering higher education because it would help them to get a better job, and with nearly 18 per cent who said that they wanted to improve their overall education.
The results run counter to fears that students might be forced into choosing more business-orientated subjects, rather than disciplines they are genuinely interested in, when higher tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year are introduced in September.
However, the poll shows that students will demand more from universities when they are paying higher fees.
Just over half those surveyed (50.5 per cent) said that they expected academic facilities to improve, while 42 per cent wanted better accommodation than they had viewed.
Nearly a third (32 per cent) wanted better social and sporting facilities than were currently provided, according to the Unite Student Experience Report 2012.
Acquiring new knowledge and skills was the most important aspect of a university experience, according to applicants, followed closely by the opportunities to make friends and to enjoy a good social life.
Next on the list was having excellent support from lecturers, while a university’s reputation and the chance to develop personally were also important considerations for students.
Paul Harris, group director of strategy and corporate relations at Unite, said: “Even though our research has shown that today’s students are prioritising academic rigour over partying, expectations are equally high when it comes to the non-academic side of university life.
“The challenge for all of us working in the sector is to find the critical balance in meeting raised expectations where appropriate, but also ensuring that students’ expectations are managed, and that they don’t arrive at university anticipating an experience that is entirely unrealistic.”