What's on a student's checklist for accommodation? Paul Harris, group strategy and corporate relations director at Unite, which develops and manages purpose-built student accommodation in the UK, says the priorities include internet provision, location, security, price and cleanliness.
Institutions that scored highly on accommodation provide all this, but interestingly, three out of the top seven offer a very different experience from the majority of higher education institutions. The University of Cambridge, which came top, Lancaster University, in joint second, and the University of Oxford, which came joint fourth, all provide most of their accommodation through colleges.
At Cambridge, all single undergraduates are expected to live in accommodation provided by one of its 31 colleges, bringing together undergraduates, postgraduates and fellows from all the disciplines. A spokesman says: "It fosters a sense of community. Eating together is a very important part of that, and pastoral care is very strong."
Hilary Simmons, head of colleges and student life at Lancaster, says: "It's not like a first-year hall of residence. You have this huge vibrancy of second- and third-years organising lots of activities and social events. Keeping these smaller communities within the overall huge university community is really important to us."
There is a similar ethos at Oxford, where the majority of undergraduates live in college accommodation.
Sheffield, in joint fourth place, is expanding its accommodation beyond first-years, and now has a number of houses and apartments designated for returning students.
Pat McGrath, Sheffield's director of accommodation and commercial services, says: "It's about more than just a room. We offer a wide range of services and facilities, from on-site security and welfare support to organised activities and events. In the past few years we've seen a growing trend for returning students, postgraduates, international students, couples and families choosing to live in our accommodation, creating a diverse community of students."
A sense of community is increasingly important to students, explains Harris, particularly the desire to mix with students from other countries and cultures. This is difficult to achieve in the private rented sector, and requires accommodation with communal areas.
When Unite has asked prospective applicants about where they want to live, another key word has been "modern". The past decade has seen a huge amount of new-build and refurbishment. Cambridge colleges may include medieval and Victorian buildings but they contain en-suite facilities and wi-fi, and a number of ultra-modern annexes. Rooms cost between £80 and £130 a week.
An Oxford spokeswoman comments: "The quality and quantity of student accommodation available continues to improve with refurbishment and also a number of exciting new projects." This academic year has seen the opening of two handsome blocks at Somerville College, for example. Accommodation at Oxford costs about £3,900 a year.
The University of East Anglia says it is continuing to invest in its housing stock, and it now has 3,500 high-quality study bedrooms, most with en-suite facilities. A spokesperson explains: "We try to provide a range of rents to suit every pocket, and for the current year they range from £62 to £103 a week."
There has been a trend among institutions to outsource accommodation to external companies, but this is virtually non-existent among the winners. A small proportion of the University of Sheffield's places, for example, are provided by Opal, which offers student accommodation in 14 cities. But Sheffield redeveloped the bulk of its accommodation in a five-year project that concluded in 2009, in partnership with the construction company Catalyst Higher Education (Sheffield). Annual rents range from just under £3,300 to about £7,000 for a studio suitable for a couple.
The University of Dundee, joint second in our survey, has 1,600 single en-suite rooms and since 2004 has had a building and refurbishment partnership with Sanctuary Management Services. The majority of places go to entrance students. Margaret Wyllie, Dundee's residences manager, says: "We used to have family accommodation but it reduced in popularity. There is a lot of private accommodation in Dundee fairly close to the university." Its annual student accommodation fees range from just under £4,000 to £4,600.
Lancaster, joint second, and Loughborough, joint fourth in the list, have each joined forces with University Partnerships Programme (UPP), which has secured almost £1.5 billion of investment for university estates over the past decade, and plans to invest another £1 billion over the next three years. Lancaster's weekly rents range from about £70 to £113, while Loughborough's range from £4,500 to £6,200 annually for en-suite accommodation with catering.
Simmons says Lancaster was a pioneer of "eco-houses", which make up about 12 per cent of its stock and are hugely popular with students. UPP developed this sustainable model with Avi Friedman, professor of architecture at McGill University in Montreal. Jon Wakeford, UPP's director of strategy and communications, says the buildings incorporate more energy-efficient technologies and encourage students to live more sustainably, for example by using real-time energy monitors.
Despite the drop in undergraduate applications for 2012-13, there is little alarm in accommodation offices that this will lead to unfilled rooms. Wakeford says: "Although there has been a slight dip in applications this year, we believe the trend will be similar to the introduction of top-up [tuition] fees, and we'll see growth in student applications next year. In the vast majority of cases, UPP accommodation is designed to house new undergraduate students - 18-year-olds - and applications from this group have held up well, falling by 3.6 per cent. We do not envisage any real fall in demand for accommodation as demand still outstrips supply."
This is echoed by Harris of Unite. Currently about 17 per cent of students live at home, he says, and a survey of school-leavers carried out by Unite before Christmas revealed that 16 per cent were planning to live at home in 2012-13.
Both he and Wakeford point to a continuing need for new and refurbished student accommodation to cope with demand. And that demand could lead to some novel developments. Sean McKeown, UK commercial director of Campus Living Villages, which provides student accommodation in Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK, says student demand in Australia and the US has led to resort-style accommodation with everything from movie theatres to spas: "In the UK, we believe we will see a similar trend."
As students have begun to pay more for their education, they are demanding more from their university experience, says McKeown. "Accommodation, its facilities, and the community built around this, is a big part of that experience."