Shiny new image does the business

October 13, 1995

How do applicants choose what to put on their UCAS forms? Alison Utley looks at the research and talks to sixth-formers. As sixth-formers around the country pore over higher education prospectuses in the run-up to application deadlines, a report aiming to uncover the influences affecting students' choice of university has found that new universities appear to have created more successful brand images than older institutions.

"The only institutions remaining impervious to the apparent attractions of the former PCFC sector are Oxford and Cambridge," says Mark Baimbridge, an economist from Bradford University and author of The Institutional Demand for HE.

Mr Baimbridge has used the statistical technique of regression analysis to examine a list of factors likely to influence students' choices. These include the age of the institution; its 1992 research assessment results; the male-female ratio of students; the probability of gaining entry; the number of subjects offered and some economic factors such as average weekly rent in the area. In addition, some THES league table indicators of interest to undergraduates were included in the analysis of 1993/94 admissions data.

Mr Baimbridge found that a recent date of achieving university status had a positive influence on applications. He found this puzzling as it could be assumed that older institutions possessed a greater degree of gravitas, which could be expected to positively influence applications.

It is possible, however, that the former polytechnics, as new entrants in to this market, could be simply experiencing a "honeymoon period". Mr Baimbridge also thought that some students could be confused by the term "new university" believing it to mean "better".

He also found the easier the admission to an institution then the smaller the number of applications. "This finding appears inconsistent with rational behaviour," says Mr Baimbridge.

Two reasons are offered to explain the result. First ease of admission could be equated with low quality, and secondly the thinking may be that such a university will receive too many applications and therefore it would be better to try elsewhere.

Sixth-form students at Guiseley School near Leeds who are currently finalising their forms for the Universities Central Admissions Service certainly did not want to end up at a university that was "easy to get in to". The students were listening closely to the advice of their tutors for guidance on the academic reputation of each university plus its graduate employment record.

"We know which universities are the best from asking our teachers," said Liz Edwardson who will be trying for a place at Cambridge to read maths.

Cost was also a factor. Caroline Cundey has looked at Cambridge but decided it would be too expensive since students there seemed to have costly lifestyles. She will try for Durham University instead.

Also important was the atmosphere of the institution. James Adamson thought Durham would be "stuffy". For him the advice of friends and family, particularly those who had already studied at university, was a great influence. "It depends so much on who you know," he said. "I don't want anything too formal - a more relaxed atmosphere would suit me."

For Chris Helm good facilities, particularly computers, were key to his choice of university. All agreed that the new universities suffered from a stigma associated with lower standards. Ms Cundey said: "If the entry standards are lower then the standard of people getting in must be lower so the course will probably be less demanding."

Mr Baimbridge's research found that a larger number of academic departments at a university had a positive impact on applications. However the reasons were unclear. "This could be seen as suggesting that the greater breadth in teaching and research is a strong quality indicator," he said.

The likelihood of gaining employment after graduation was found to be a positive determining factor particularly for females, although it was found to be insignificant for European Union applications.

When testing the effect of weekly rent levels the research found that higher rents exerted a negative impact. This implies that the cost of accommodation is a significant factor for students. However higher rents had a positive influence on non-UK applications.

The report suggests this is because overseas students are attracted to regions with higher rents since they assume that greater cost indicates better quality.

The Institutional Demand for HE by Mark Baimbridge, University of Bradford department of social and economic studies.

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