Brighton in, Manchester out. How to acquire a degree in cool

The old hierarchies and snob ratings are disappearing in this year's smart choices
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Students who received their A-level results last week had more than one reason to be cheerful. Not only was the overall pass rate up again – to within a whisker of 90 per cent – but there are also a record number of university places going begging.

As part of the Government's long-term commitment to bringing half of all young people into higher education by 2010, universities are already making more places available. There are, however, not yet enough applicants to fill them and this is creating a buyer's market.

Last year some 9,500 places were left unfilled, and this year there are 11,000 additional full-time places. Although the number of applications has risen by about 10,000, it is likely that supply will exceed demand and, happily, would-be students will find themselves spoilt for choice. It is good news for those who didn't make the grade for the course they wanted to study, forcing them to enter the clearing system, the annual match-making service by which universities find students to take up their unfilled places.

But the shortfall may also prompt those students who secured higher grades than expected to think about breaking the rules and trading up to what they see as a better university or degree. Although applicants are supposedly tied into the institution whose offer they first accepted, there is little that admissions officers can do if someoneditches their chosen institution in favour of another.

But what makes one university more desirable than another anyway? Which institutions are currently hot and which are not? According to The Push Guide to Which University compiled from reports filed by student researchers, the ratio of men to women, the price of a pint of beer and the availability of car-parking space are as important to today's students as the quality of teaching and the variety of books in the library. The guide's managing editor, Johnny Rich, said: "The misconception used to be that all universities are the same and you will have a good time wherever you go. That was wrong then and it's even more wrong now. There are more places than ever before but students are more worried about money. No wonder they're careful about choosing the place that's right for them.

"A campus university such as Warwick, Keele or Essex is likely to be close-knit and gossipy. And a small rural university will not allow as many different types of people to express themselves in as many ways as a big urban one. Hip doesn't necessarily mean inner-city, either. Somewhere like Lampeter is so laid-back it's almost a hippy commune."

Big city universities such as London and Manchester continue to attract students as much for their nightlife as for their academic record. But the cost of rent forces students to live in the more dangerous neighbourhoods where they become targets for burglars and muggers. Smaller towns and cities have their own attractions, too. Brighton is one of the trendiest places in the country to study, no doubt helped by the glamour of resident celebrities Fatboy Slim and Zoe Ball.

Even the possibility of a glimpse of Prince William on his way to lectures has proved a draw. Applications to St Andrews have soared 43 per cent since he accepted an offer to read History of Art there this September. St Andrews is one of only a handful of universities that do not have any vacancies left.

Even members of the Russell Group that comprises universities earning most of their income from research will have to enter the clearing system to fill places. The Russell Group includes Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton and Warwick, and four London colleges – Imperial, King's, the London School of Economics and University College London. Although they remain popular, their stringent A-level demands may deter some from applying. Others view some universities as uncool for a reason that only makes sense in a country as class-obsessed as Britain. Certain institutions – Bristol, Durham, Exeter and Edinburgh among them – have a reputation for attracting private school pupils who have failed to get into Oxford or Cambridge.

In the battle for student applications it's the new universities, the former polytechnics that converted to university status in 1992, that still struggle. Of the 9,500 places that went unfilled last year more than 6,500 were in new universities.

However, as the push to get under-represented groups into higher education intensifies, new universities are in a good position to capitalise, having pioneered vocational courses and flexible ways of studying. As Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK, the re-branded Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, explained, more students are choosing to live at home while studying rather than moving away.

"One long-term trend is that more students are living at home. It's partly to save money and partly because they need to work while studying. They find it easier to get a job near to where they already have social networks. Now students are more concerned that their course will give them an edge in the labour market."

The demand for vocational courses has hit more traditional subjects. Some science and engineering departments have closed to make way for business, computing and media studies. But, as provost of London Guildhall, Prof Floud accepts the need for institutions to offer what students want. This includes the flexibility to allow them to combine academia with work experience.

He is not unduly worried about the number of unfilled places. In the new market-oriented world of higher education, students are customers and choice is good. "Nobody complains when there are spare seats at a restaurant," he says. "It may be inconvenient for universities but students can only benefit."