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Pulling power

Which universities have the X factor that attracts applicants? Rebecca Attwood gets the lowdown from students and brand experts in the UK

The 'cool' unis are the places where people think, 'I know I'm going to have a good time'," says Rosie, a sixth-former at Thomas Tallis School. "There is an element of looking up reputations and stuff, but you also know you want to go out and have a 'true' student experience."

Ask students at the comprehensive in Kidbrooke, south London, about "fashionable" places to study, and the universities they name have clear features in common.

They are all based in cities, they are predominantly from the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, they include some of the UK's most applied-to universities, and they all have a reputation for fun: Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Southampton and Sussex.

"It's the ones with the liveliest student life - places with that city vibe," explains Connie, 18.

Rosie says she applied to Edinburgh because of "the scene" - "because of the festival, it is a really vibrant place to go".

By sheer volume of applications, the University of Manchester is number one in the national popularity stakes.

By the end of June last year, it had received a massive 56,598 applications. The next most popular was the University of Leeds, with 51,694 applications, then the University of Edinburgh, with 47,794.

Explaining the influences on their decisions, sixth-formers at Thomas Tallis talk about universities' reputations, their position in rankings, information and impressions gleaned from open days, the campus location and environment, and levels of student support.

For one pupil, a key criterion was access to a centre of cricketing excellence, for another it was finding an institution that would accept her on to her chosen course with her grades.

"I liked (the University of Central) Lancashire because of the facilities for where you could do private study," says Nirvana, 19.

"They were always open, and the university had more support for me. The accommodation is really nice and there is good security - if you feel like you are stranded or lost somewhere they can come and get you."

Dionne, 18, has an offer to study English literature from Oxford, but she also applied to University College London, Durham, York and East Anglia.

"I mostly picked them because of league tables," she says. "It was (based on) their reputation and looking online to see what other people thought."

Oonagh McGowan has overseen university applications at Thomas Tallis for many years.

She says there is a "complex web of factors" that influence students' choices, but she does observe trends.

"Sussex used to be known as Tallis-on-Sea because so many of our students went there," she laughs. "Recently, it has not been quite so popular, but this year it has come right back into fashion."

The continuing popularity owes at least something to a long-standing bond between the university and the school: Thomas Tallis organises student visits to Sussex every year.

"Even my daughter has applied there," says McGowan. "She and her friends talk about it a lot, and they've done a lot of research. She loved Sussex because of the place itself. When they went there it was a sunny day, and I think she imagined, 'This is what my life would be like'."

Thomas Tallis is a large comprehensive with students from many different backgrounds and of varying levels of academic achievement.

Although wary of drawing stereotypes, McGowan believes that it tends to be "the middle-class white kids" who are most influenced by what is "in fashion" and who want to go "somewhere outside London where there is a great nightlife".

Others, of course, choose to live at home during their studies, while some students make a decision about where to study based solely on the job they hope to get after graduating. "I think that is a family pressure," McGowan says. "They don't see what you would do with an English or fine art degree."

At Newham Sixth Form College in east London, the universities that students name as fashionable are all close to home: City University London; Queen Mary, University of London; and the University of East London.

"Many people are staying local for some reason," says Sthefanny, 18, who is studying for a BTEC national diploma in travel and tourism at City.

"It used to be the farther you could get away from London, the better. I think it is probably because of the money (that now more students stay near home)."

Parvez - who has bucked the trend by applying to Derby, Greenwich, Hertfordshire and Northampton - agrees.

"I think Sthefanny is right. Most people aren't moving out. I am probably one out of about 10 people in this college who want to."

The recession, combined with substantial tuition fees, is also driving more students to opt for universities that are known for their vocational courses, the students conclude.

When it comes to explaining their own decisions, one cites a teacher's recommendation, another says she based her choice on the different lecturing styles she experienced on a series of "taster" days, a third refers to the university's reputation, and another says her selection was limited because of the specialised nature of her course.

But they confess that friends are also an influence. "I must admit that my second choice is because my friends are going there," says Conor, 18, whose first choice is Durham.

Sthefanny says: "Five friends of mine are all going to the University of Greenwich to do travel and tourism management with different languages. They are going to do the same thing, and they are all probably going to be on the same course."

Parvez remarks: "People like the safer option. No one likes to explore." Sthefanny concurs: "No one likes to take risks any more."

But surely that is half the fun, Conor interjects.

"Exactly," says Parvez. "I'm going to Derby - and I have no idea who is there."

"It just all depends on the type of person you are - if you like to go to different places and meet new people and start afresh every time," Sthefanny concludes.

Destinations data from Newham Sixth Form College show that last year 20 per cent of students went on to study at East London, 13 per cent at the University of Westminster, 11 per cent at Greenwich, 6 per cent at London South Bank University, 5 per cent at Middlesex University and 4 per cent at Queen Mary.

"The figures speak for themselves," says Rob Ferguson, senior A-level tutor at the college. "The key issue here is locality."

While research has shown that students from lower socio-economic groups are more likely to study locally, he does not think that the reasons are purely economic.

It is also about local universities being "a known quantity".

"The majority of our students are the first in their family to apply to university - certainly first generation.

"In addition, a lot of peer influence comes into play. They've got a brother, a sister or a friend who has gone to UEL. I think that reinforces the parental perspective of keeping their teenagers close," Ferguson says.

"I don't think it is just students from a Muslim background or female students who choose to study locally. That is there, but it is also the way that community comes together in Newham and supports itself here and, in some ways, is tight. Sometimes it feels almost insular in some respects. I think that extends to the issue of progression to higher education.

"It is very difficult statistically to assign specific weight to particular factors because you have a lot of different factors coming together. The relative disadvantage in terms of achievement is also a factor."

Another element that comes into play is the way in which universities engage with students from the community.

Ferguson argues that some institutions, particularly the more competitive ones, do not always recognise how intimidating they can be.

"We had a great student a few years ago who went to Cambridge but left at the end of the first term. It wasn't an academic issue, he just couldn't fit into the milieu. Of course, we have had others who have gone to Oxford and Cambridge and have really engaged with it, enjoyed it and stayed the course."

One way to get a sense of a university's popularity is to examine the level of competition for places. On this measure, it is the London School of Economics that stands out from the crowd.

As a specialist institution, it accepts only 1,200 undergraduates annually. Last year it received almost 19,000 applications, meaning that there were almost 16 students vying for each place.

Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the LSE, says: "There are lots of different reasons why students want to study at the LSE - the reputation of the LSE degree, the richness of its social science coverage, London itself and the international student mix. An American student years ago said: 'It's awesome, you walk down the corridors and the names on the doors are the same as the names on the books in the library.'"

Other institutions that are heavily over-subscribed include the University of Bristol and the University of St Andrews, both of which claim to receive more than 10 applications for every place.

But, of course, being "in fashion" is not necessarily about attracting a massive number of applications.

In recent years, a number of small specialist institutions have found themselves declared the UK's "coolest" universities by the CoolBrands Council. Among these were Goldsmiths, University of London, Central Saint Martins and the London College of Fashion.

To determine the coolest of the cool, a shortlist was drawn up by a panel of journalists, "opinion formers" and "personalities", and a nationally representative sample of 2,000 people were asked for their views on which brands were the most original, innovative, stylish, desirable, authentic and unique.

"Unfortunately there are heavy influences on your cool credentials or your brand strength that aren't necessarily in the hands of the brand," says Stephen Cheliotis, chief executive of the Centre for Brand Analysis.

The first of these is the field of education in which an institution specialises. "Clearly, courses in areas such as fashion and design are very creative. They embody things like originality and style - they are just cool areas to be in," Cheliotis explains.

"I'm not going to pick on a particular entity, but if you have a university or a college that is a specialist in engineering, unfortunately in this country it is probably not going to be seen as very cool - although that might not be the case in other countries."

The second thing that universities may find it difficult to counter is their location.

"If you are the London College of Fashion and one of your main buildings is in Oxford Circus, well that's pretty cool. If you are stuck in Coventry or Cardiff - sorry, I'm picking now - the reality is that the bulk of people will think that is not very cool. Therefore that regional brand effect is not going to help your establishment be seen as the one that people desire to go to."

But Cheliotis says there is good news for universities aspiring to be "trendy".

One thing they can help shape is what he calls the "social atmosphere" on campus.

"That's the kinds of bands that play there, the bars, the clubs, the social groups, the social network that is created. It is an area that students will clearly look into and consider."

Institutions can also control their marketing, communication and promotion.

"Education establishments have more and more thought of themselves as brands and marketed themselves as brands," says Cheliotis.

"Much like any other brand in any sector, the more innovative, the more creative, the more interesting your marketing and communications, the more you might be able to up your cool credentials."

And development offices should keep their eyes peeled because there is nothing quite as powerful as having "cool" alumni.

"Practically every article about Alex James (of the band Blur) says, 'Ooh, he went to Goldsmiths.' That builds up a reputation. People think, 'Goldsmiths is really cool and lots of cool people go there - if I go there I might be cool too.'"

THE IN-DEMAND PLACES

- Applications per place

London School of Economics: 15.8

University of St Andrews: 12

University of Bristol: 10.5

University College London: 10

University of Leicester: 8

Source: Estimates provided by individual universities

THE IN PLACES

- Universities with most applications

University of Manchester: 56,598

University of Leeds: 51,694

University of Edinburgh: 47,794

Manchester Metropolitan University: 47,052

University of Nottingham: 44,794

University of Bristol: 41,262

University of Birmingham: 40,803

Sheffield Hallam University: 38,577

Leeds Metropolitan University: 36,860

Kingston University: 36,260

Source: UCAS applications digest. Snapshot at 30 June 2009

THE UPWARDLY MOBILE PLACES

- Biggest percentage rise in number of applications, 2009 compared with 2006

University of Bedfordshire: 86%

University of Surrey: 74%

University of Worcester: 68%

Southampton Solent University: 47%

Birmingham City University: 46%

University of Exeter: 43%

Edge Hill University: 40%

Canterbury Christ Church University: 40%

University of the Arts London: 39%

Nottingham Trent University: 37%

Source: UCAS applications digest. Figures can be affected by mergers.

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