Choice of University in England: It's Not Just About the Money

For Release

June 12, 2014

RAND Europe research shows employment prospects, living expenses, university location, course quality and tuition fees are important influences on prospective students' university choices

Applications to UK universities continue to rise, but what are students comparing when choosing between universities? A new report by RAND Europe about the factors influencing the choice of university in England finds that tuition fee levels are not the only consideration in the minds of students and their parents.

RAND Europe's study, Understanding the impact of differential university fees in England, by Peter Burge et al., found that:

  • Longer-term employment and earning prospects were considered when choosing between universities.
  • While financial considerations are important, quality also matters and this is judged both on the basis of course league-table rankings and the satisfaction of current students.
  • The location of the university matters, with the primary preference being to study in an English institution at universities located within the student's region.
  • Living expenses are, pound for pound, less of a disincentive than tuition fees.
  • Debt aversion plays a role in the decision to study online.
  • Household income was not a key factor in the choice of university, among those who were already considering going on to higher education.

The research used choice experiments to provide fresh empirical evidence to inform the debate around the relative influence of tuition fee levels and other factors on the decisions of those choosing between universities.

The alternatives offered and explored within the choice experiments drew, in part, on the forms of data that are now published by UNISTATS and other websites using data collected from all higher education institutions as part of the key information set.

“These results put a new onus on universities to outperform their competitors in the higher-education market across a wide range of dimensions,” said study leader Peter Burge.

Student ratings also feature in the key information dataset, providing current students with a more powerful voice for holding institutions to account for getting a return on their tuition fees. Universities are coming under pressure to ensure that their students get the education, and broader university experience, that they are expecting.

RAND Europe surveyed two groups of individuals for the study. First, 1000 pupils intending to go to university, and 1005 (unrelated) parents of pupils intending to go to university in the autumn of 2012 or 2013. These respondents took part in a stated preference discrete choice experiment containing hypothetical university options described by characteristics of the universities. From these data, the researchers were able to quantify the importance of specific characteristics of the universities in parents' and students' university choices.

The choice models developed in this study can be further developed and supplemented with additional data that are now becoming available to allow a range of alternative policy scenarios or commercial strategies to be explored. They provide practical insights for those seeking a better understanding of the behaviours within this developing market.

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RAND Europe is an independent, not-for-profit research institute whose mission is to help improve policy and decision making through research and analysis.

Understanding the impact of differential university fees in England, by Peter Burge, Chong Woo Kim, Charlene Rohr, Michael Frearson, Benoit Guerin, RAND Europe, June 2014

Further information on the project can be found at

KIS data for all higher education institutions and their courses is available via the official website for comparing UK higher education course data:

University applicant statistics are available from

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