Town matters more than gown in college choice

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Leeds University is Britain's most popular university among aspiring undergraduates this year. It received more applications than any other university - but Oxford and Cambridge have failed to appear on a list of the 25 most popular universities in Britain. The internal list, prepared by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) before the A-level exams, confirms that students are most likely to apply to colleges in well-known towns and cities.

Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham all appear twice among the top 10 destinations, with both their old redbricks and polytechnics-turned-new universities securing places.

The University of Leeds headed the list with 52,600 applications by May this year, and Exeter crept into 25th place with 26,773. Nottingham claims to be the most popular in terms of applications per place, with 16 candidates turned away for each one who is successful. There are now more than 100 universities and university colleges in Britain.

The stress caused by the tough competition for places was underlined last week when Charlotte Thompson, 20, hanged herself after receiving disappointing exam results. However, it emerged yesterday that although she needed three Cs to enter the physiotherapy course at Northumbria, the university might have accepted her one B, one C and two D grades.

Further evidence that the big civic universities are booming and making tough grade demands on A-Level students is revealed by an Independent on Sunday analysis of offers.

On average, students will need to boost one of their A- levels by one grade to win a place in a popular subject such as French or sociology in 1995, compared with the score they would have needed six years ago. However, comparison of the official guides to university entrance for next year and for 1988 reveals that provincial city universities have increased their standard offers in these subjects by much more.

For example, Leeds used to demand a B and two Cs to read French, but now it asks for three Bs. Nottingham used to ask for three Bs to read law, but expects students applying for next year to get two As and a B. The offers for less popular subjects such as maths and physics tend to remain unchanged.

The higher demands correspond to a period during which the A-level pass rate has crept up - by 6 per cent to 82.9 per cent in the past five years, with a corresponding rise in the number of top grades.

In addition, the proportion of the population going to university has risen from 20 per cent to 30 per cent in the past 10 years, so every university has more applications.

Yet there is little doubt that universities like Leeds and Manchester are seeing a disproportionate rise in applications. Experts believe that as well as being well known, they are attracting students who cannot afford to live in Greater London.

Ann McClurkin, senior assistant registrar at the University of Leeds, said it benefited from a good social life. 'People say, 'I know someone there and they say it's brilliant.' I don't think they mean the courses. They mean the student life.'

Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, said: 'The big cities are attracting more and more applicants and therefore their grades are going higher. It's not to do with the quality of courses, it is to do with the level of demand, and the reputation of the city or the area.'

The 25 universities receiving the most applications in 1994 (in order) were:

1 Leeds 2 Manchester 3 Birmingham 4 Nottingham 5 Sheffield 6 Manchester Metropolitan 7 Sheffield Hallam 8 Liverpool John Moores 9 Nottingham Trent 10 Ulster 11 Edinburgh 12 Bristol 13 Plymouth 14 Liverpool 15 Reading 16 Southampton 17 Middlesex 18 Newcastle 19 Leeds Metropolitan 20 Glasgow 21 Warwick 22 UC, London 23 Lancaster 24 Queen's, Belfast 25 Exeter