Education: Choosing a university - the name is the game

What makes one university more popular than another: is it the courses, the nightlife or a prestigious name? Lucy Hodges investigates
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In the old days university prospectuses were dreary documents designed - so it seemed to applicants - to make institutions sound as dull as possible. Higher education was a closed world, a secret garden inhabited by a small elite of administrators, dons and students. Universities didn't bother with the mucky business of attracting applicants. Reputations were conveyed by word of mouth, not league tables.

Now we have a mass market - rankings and guide books, golden hellos, glossy prospectuses and marketing. Universities care about their market share, their market position and their brand name. They care so much that one institution, Anglia Polytechnic University, is expected to change its name and drop the "Polytechnic" so as to shift its image upmarket. The evidence is that a university's name can affect its popularity - but more about that later.

The popularity of a university is intimately linked to its reputation. The most popular universities - certainly when one is talking about the pre-1992 universities - tend to be those which are rated for teaching and research, notably this year Bristol, Nottingham, the London School of Economics, Sheffield and Manchester, to name a few. Last month Manchester was named as the highest rated university (outside Oxbridge) in a survey of parents and sixth formers carried out for The Independent.

The most popular new universities are Nottingham Trent, Liverpool John Moores, North London, Brighton, Manchester Met and Leeds Met.

Oxford and Cambridge do poorly on ratio of applicants to places because so many are deterred from applying by the high entry requirements.

There isn't one market in higher education but two: the old universities and the new. According to David Roberts, director of the Higher Education Information Services Trust (Heist), the factors determining these markets include: social class; whether students want to live at home or not (which is linked to class); whether students comefrom vocational courses or A- levels; and whether they're want pure or applied courses .

Students in new universities tend to regard a degree as a means to an end - a job - whereas students in old universities see a degree as an end in itself. So their criteria when it comes to choosing institutions differ. The former pay more attention to graduate employment record, what the alumni do, what careers the university specialises in; the latter concentrate on social life and location.

Naturally, universities receiving the highest volume of applications tend to have lots of places on lots of courses. "A bigger university will get more applications," says Roberts. They also tend to offer more of the popular or growing subjects such as law, medicine and media-related studies - which is why their applications-to-places ratio is higher. Correspondingly, universities that concentrate their offerings in subjects such as physics and electronic engineering, which find it hard to recruit students, do less well.

In the popularity stakes, a highly rated university will always outperform one that is less highly rated. That is why the big civics - the likes of Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester - tend to dominate. Their entry requirements are not prohibitive, they are well established, they are in big cities with an exciting nightlife and first-years are guaranteed a place in a hall of residence.

If one looks at new universities, the same factors apply. Within the set of institutions that comprises that market, students want to go to the best one for their subject. Nottingham Trent, for example, is known for fashion, stage design, law and some areas of business. It is also in a lively student city and easy to reach. "We have a clear sense of purpose," says Professor Ray Cowell, its vice-chancellor. "A lot of universities are drifting between conflicting missions. It's our distinctiveness that makes us successful."

Universities that know their market, carve out a niche and don't move with the fashion are the ones that seem to flourish.

Warwick University, born in the 1960s, is a case in point (see box, right). It took no notice of the criticism it was subjected to from left-wing intellectuals such as the late EP Thompson. It went on developing links with companies in the West Midlands, being responsive to their needs through research, consultancy and short courses, and generating funds for itself. That has paid off, as one can see from its stellar performance in research, its brilliance at generating income and its joining the unofficial British Ivy League. It is now the BMW of the university world.

"I think students are also looking for a modern university, one which reflects the end of the century, not the middle of the century," says Warwick's vice chancellor, Sir Brian Follett. "Warwick does that rather well."

Another sought-after university is York. Highly regarded for teaching and research, it has established an impressive reputation for itself over the years. "Students tell us that the fact that the university is a campus university but within the city of York makes a brilliant combination because the city is a super place to live in," says York's vice chancellor, Professor Ronald Cooke.

A university that has come from nowhere is Bath. In the 1960s it was a college of advanced technology. Today it is a highly ranked university, jostling for position in the top 15. Its vice chancellor, David Vandelinde, thinks it benefits from being on the edge of Jane Austen's lovely Georgian spa town. But that can't be the only reason for its success. "We have had consistency of purpose," he says. "The profile of the university has remained remarkably consistent."

Still a small technological university with 60 per cent of first-year students on sandwich courses and the best graduate employment record of traditional universities, it has concentrated on what it is good at. And it has built up research and developed excellent sports facilities - always popular with students.

One thing these popular universities have in common, according to Brian Heap, author of the annual guide "Degree Course Offers", is that they are well known and associated with famous towns or cities that have classy names. "A university which doesn't identify with one particular place can suffer," he says.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, endorses that. Ten years ago he carried out research into young people's knowledge of higher education and found that institutions named after big towns or cities were more popular than places named after counties (Essex or Sussex) and people (Brunel, Heriot-Watt). Then, Nottingham Trent University was called Trent Polytechnic. When it changed its name to Nottingham Poly it saw a huge jump in applications.

Conversely, Plymouth Poly changed its name to Polytechnic of the South West and suffered a big drop in applicants in 1990-91. No wonder it changed its name back again when it became a university.