Which University? Which Course? Undergraduate Students’ Reflections on the Factors that Influenced their Choices.

Authors

Abstract

The paper measures the relative significance of factors affecting prospective undergraduates in their choice of university and course. The paper also examines the relative importance of different sources of information in making this choice. Based on factors identified by undergraduate students, the paper centres on the results of a questionnaire distributed to first year undergraduate law students at two universities. The results are looked at in the light of a recent national survey, and conclusions are drawn which should be of interest to those involved in student recruitment across all disciplines.

Paul Catley
Paul Catley is a Senior Lecturer in the Law Department and is currently researching the effectiveness of e-learning in enhancing student retention and progression as part of his University Teaching Fellowship.

Stage One – The Focus Group

see table A below

This article stems from work undertaken with a focus group of approximately twenty undergraduate students looking at the factors that affected their choice of university and course, and the sources of information that they used in arriving at their choices. The twenty students were predominantly first years in their second term at university and therefore the process of choosing where to apply was relatively fresh in their memories. All the students were studying law at the same university (University A) and therefore, as a result of the congruence of both their choice of course and their choice of institution, their views may be atypical.

The focus group, after considerable discussion, arrived at a list of seventeen factors which they considered had affected their own and/or their friends and peer group in their choice of university and course. Some of these factors related specifically to the course: such as the entry requirements for that particular course, the perceived quality of teaching on the course, and the reputation of the course. Other factors related more generally to the university: such as the position of the university in league tables, the attractiveness of the university campus and the quality of the sports, library and computing facilities. Factors taken into consideration also extended beyond the university and included such issues as the attractiveness of the city in which the university is situated and the quality of the local nightlife. Finally there were a range of personal factors that included the proximity of the university to the student’s home and personal recommendations that the student had received from sources such as friends, family, school and the careers service.

Stage Two – The Questionnaire

In order to test the general applicability of these findings, a questionnaire was created and given to first year law students at two universities (Universities A and B). The respondents were asked to assess each factor on a sliding scale of importance from 1-5, in which 1 equated to ‘not at all important’ and 5 equated to ‘very important’. It should be noted that students were not limited as to the number of factors to which they could give a particular ranking and, whilst the findings showed strong similarities in the priorities of both groups of students, it should be noted that the rankings given by students from University A tended to be higher than those from University B.

Table A

Combined University A University B
235 respondents 110 respondents 125 respondents
Position Factor Ranking Very Important Ranking Very Important Very Important
1 The reputation of the course

4.58

66.1%

4.66

72.0%

4.51

61.0%

2 The position of the course in league tables

4.30

51.5%

4.38

57.0%

4.23

46.7%

3 The quality of teaching

4.29

50.2%

4.26

49.6%

4.32

50.9%

4 The reputation of the university

4.18

43.8%

4.35

51.4%

4.02

37.1%

5 The teaching methods

3.95

31.7%

3.96

31.5%

3.93

32.0%

6 The ‘A’ level or equivalent grades demanded

3.94

41.9%

4.00

41.1%

3.89

42.6%

7 The position of the university in league tables

3.87

30.7%

4.08

39.3%

3.69

23.4%

8= University library and computer facilities

3.77

27.8%

3.80

30.2%

3.74

25.6%

8= Attractiveness of the city/location

3.77

29.1%

3.85

32.7%

3.71

26.0%

10 Good transport links

3.64

32.2%

3.78

36.4%

3.53

28.3%

11 Flexibility of courses

3.51

22.8%

3.77

32.1%

3.29

14.8%

12 Proximity of the university to home

3.30

31.7%

3.13

26.2%

3.44

36.6%

13 The attractiveness of the university campus

3.26

15.2%

3.61

20.4%

2.96

10.6%

14 Nightlife

3.21

20.5%

3.20

19.8%

3.22

21.3%

15 Student support facilities

3.07

11.6%

3.28

16.7%

2.89

7.3%

16 Recommendations from friends and family

3.01

15.8%

3.02

16.8%

3.01

14.9%

17 Other university facilities

2.98

9.8%

3.24

15.2%

2.76

5.0%

18 Recommendations from school and careers service

2.96

12.9%

3.16

13.9%

2.79

12.1%

19 The Students’ Union

2.93

12.3%

3.23

15.2%

2.68

9.8%

20 University clubs and societies

2.90

8.3%

3.14

11.3%

2.69

5.7%

21 University sports facilities

2.53

7.5%

2.90

10.5%

2.20

1.7%

The Course Matters Most

Note:

The ranking is calculated by adding all the responses (not at all important = 1, very important = 5 etc.) and dividing by the number of respondents.

At both universities, the most important factor was the reputation of the course. This received an average of 4.58 marks out of a possible 5 and was categorised as very important by

nearly two thirds (66.1%) of respondents. Overall, the second most important factor was the position of the course in league tables -a factor judged very important by just over half (51.5%) of the respondents. The fact that these two closely linked factors were viewed as most significant is very interesting and suggests for these students, at least, it is the course and in particular the reputation of the course that matters most. The extent to which the reputation of the course is a product of its position in league tables is obviously a moot point – the fact that reputation came out ahead of league position is nonetheless interesting as it suggests that students may be viewing league table positions as only part of the picture when measuring course reputation.

Course-related factors also account for a number of the other most important factors: with the quality of teaching and the teaching methods adopted both featuring in the five most important factors. Add to these the ‘A’ level or equivalent grades demanded for admission to the course and the picture presented is that five of the most important six factors in arriving at their choice are course-related and four of the top five factors relate to the perceived quality and teaching methods adopted on the course. The only other specifically course-related issue included in the survey was the flexibility of the course. This factor was ranked 11th in the assessment, though notably it was one of the few issues where there was a significant disparity between the answers of respondents in University A as against those from University B. At University A, it was categorised as very important by 32.1% of respondents, whereas the corresponding figure for University B was only 14.8%. This disparity may be explained by the fact that University A’s courses are unusually flexible with very few compulsory courses, a wide range of options and a large proportion of students taking combined honours degree courses. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that more of the students who chose such a degree course would place a high value on flexibility – it also suggests that many applicants are well informed in making their choices as to university and course.

But The University Also Matters

Whilst the impression that students have of the course is clearly critical, a range of issues related to the university were also seen as very significant factors. The reputation of the university was the fourth most important factor with 43.8% of respondents viewing it as very important and over half of the respondents at University A classifying it as very important. As with the attitude to the course, the position of the university in league tables was also viewed as significant in deciding where to apply – just over 30% classed that factor as very important. With both these factors, respondents at university A generally gave these factors higher weighting than respondents from University B. With regard to more specific university facilities, easily the most important factor was the quality of library and computing facilities. Interestingly the focus group linked these two factors and none of the survey respondents raised a question as to whether the two should be grouped together – therefore it seems that prospective students see these facilities as linked and complementary rather than distinct. Other university-wide facilities generally came fairly low in the rankings: student support facilities (15th), the Students’ Union (19th), University clubs and societies (20th), sports facilities (21st) and the catch-all ‘other university facilities’ (17th). However, before discounting such factors as unimportant, it should be noted not only that all of these had been identified by the focus group as factors affecting university and course choice, but also that all these factors were very important to a significant number of students. Indeed, these factors may still have a significant impact on student choice. To take, for example, sports facilities, the factor deemed least important by respondents from both University A and University B, one can discern a distinct difference between the attitudes of students at the two institutions. At University A, a university with a reputation for the high quality of its sports facilities, over 10% of students rated the factor very important -whereas at University B, where the quality of sports facilities has been criticised, less than 2% of students viewed sports facilities as very important. This would seem to suggest that students for whom sports facilities matter are more likely to apply to and take up places at University A rather than University B.

Surroundings Matter Too

Whilst the foregoing may suggest that prospective students in deciding where to apply and where to accept are preoccupied with academic and course-related matters, it would be wrong to think, on the basis of these surveys at least, that they do not have other factors affecting their choice. Aesthetic factors also count. The attractiveness of the city/location was viewed as important a factor as the computing and library facilities (joint 8th in the rankings) with 29.1% categorising it as very important. The attractiveness of the university campus was also important, being ranked above features such as student support services, the Student Union, university clubs and societies, and the university sports facilities.

Don’t Forget The Nightlife

It may not be the factor that academics would like to see at the forefront of prospective students minds when choosing their university but the local nightlife was for many an important factor. Although 15.7% of respondents reported that nightlife was ‘not at all important’ in making their decision over a fifth (20.7%) classed this factor as very important and almost half the students (48.4%) rated the importance of the nightlife at either 4 or 5 out of 5. Indeed, it is possible that the importance of nightlife was underestimated – the surveys were carried out in lectures – could it be that those who were absent were more likely to be those for whom the nightlife was central to their student experience?

What About Research?

Interestingly, the focus group did not cite the university or the subject teaching group’s research record as a factor in deciding where to apply. Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) scores do feed into most league table assessments and research may be an element in creating the reputation of a course and of a university, but it was not something which the focus group thought worth including as a separate factor. Survey respondents were given the opportunity to add further factors that they thought important, but only 12 (5%) did so, several of these raised more than one additional factor, but no factor was raised by more than two students. Four factors were raised by two students, these were: the cost of living, student accommodation, staff : student ratios, and the availability of professional postgraduate

Where Do Prospective Students Get the Information on Which they Make their Decisions?

In addition to identifying factors which they felt affected student choice of university and course, the student focus group also identified 12 sources of information on which they and their friends had relied in deciding where to go and what to study. The same survey group of students at the two universities were asked to rank these sources again on a scale from 1-5 where 1 equated to the source being not at all important and 5 indicated that the source was very important.

Table B

Combined University A University B
235 respondents 110 respondents 125 respondents
Position Factor Ranking Very Important Ranking Very Important Ranking Very Important
1 University prospectuses

3.88

38.9%

3.91

37.6%

3.86

40.2%

2 University visit days/open days

3.44

28.6%

3.47

31.8%

3.42

25.6%

3 Press reports including league tables

3.43

22.9%

3.53

27.5%

3.32

18.4%

4 University websites

3.41

21.7%

3.57

23.9%

3.26

19.7%

5 Advice from family

3.26

23.4%

3.33

26.6%

3.19

20.4%

6 Books providing guides to university courses

3.20

17.4%

3.33

22.2%

3.08

16.5%

7 Advice from people who had been at the university

3.18

22.1%

3.22

25.2%

3.15

19.1%

8 Guidance from UCAS

3.12

17.4%

3.17

18.3%

3.08

16.5%

9 Advice from friends

3.08

14.3%

3.13

16.5%

2.99

12.3%

10 Advice from school/college

3.05

17.4%

3.32

22.2%

2.80

12.9%

11 Advice from careers service

2.76

11.3%

3.07

16.8%

2.48

6.1%

12 University fairs

2.65

7.7%

2.75

10.3%

2.55

5.3%

Universities As Sources Of Information

Interestingly, according to the survey results, prospective students tend to look to universities for much of the information on which they base their decisions. University prospectuses, visit days and websites were all rated as more important sources of information than advice from families, friends, schools and careers services. The surveys indicate that university prospectuses are the single most important source of information with students at both universities ranking them the most important source of information: nearly 40% classing the prospectus as ‘very important’ in their decision-making process. Virtually all students made use of prospectuses in arriving at their decision – less than 10% of the respondents (9.3%) rated the prospectus as unimportant (ratings of 1 or 2). Therefore it is clear that universities ignore the importance of the prospectus in the minds of prospective students at their peril. Similarly, universities should not underestimate the importance of visit and open days, nor should they ignore the significance of their website in informing and determining student choice.

Applicability of the Findings

The surveys were only carried out at two universities and the sample sizes were relatively small. The two universities may be atypical. Moreover, the focus group and the students surveyed were all law students, though a significant number at University A were combined honours students studying law with another subject – therefore, it is possible that the research says more about decision-making by prospective law students rather than students generally. Similarly, the courses themselves may be viewed as atypical – both having been rated excellent in the last teaching quality assessment exercise and both staff groups having achieved a 4 in the last RAE.

The Law Student 2000 Project led by Mike Cuthbert is based on responses from over 1,000 law students from over 40 different universities in England. Whilst the response rate per institution is clearly lower than that in the survey of Universities A and B, the total number of responses is greater and the spread of different types of institution considerably wider. The Project found that the vast majority of law students chose their university course because they wanted to enhance their job prospects – 89% rated job prospects as fairly or very important in deciding to apply to university (the highest two responses on a four point scale). The reputation of the university with employers being very significant in their decision-making process (86% rated it as fairly or very important). This reflects the findings of the research at Universities A and B where the reputation of the course and the position of the course in league tables were the most important factors, and the reputation of the university, the fourth most important factor.

Cuthbert’s research found that for a minority of students the ability to live at home was important, however, for some it was very important: 22% rated it as very important and a further 10% as fairly important. Amongst new university students, the figures were higher: 30% rating it as very important and a further 12%, fairly important. These figures are similar to those found at Universities A and B in which 31.7% rated it as very important. The Law Student 2000 research asked specific questions on the cost of living and the availability of part-time jobs as determinant factors, whereas the focus group for the two university survey did not include these amongst their 17 primary factors. Whilst included in the Law Student 2000 research, these factors were found to be less significant – only 11% of students classed the cost of living as very important and the same percentage viewed the local availability of part-time work as very important. However, it may be that these factors will become more important over time, student debt is already well-documented and increased student fees may make prospective students weigh such factors heavily in the future.

The Law Student 2000 research also looked at the extent to which students were influenced in their decision-making by recommendations from parents, teachers and friends. These headings broadly equate to the two university study’s measurement of the influence of advice from family, school/college and friends.

Table C

  Law Student 2000 Universities A & B

Recommendation of teachers/Advice from school or college

Very Important 19%

Very Important 17.4%

Recommendation of parents/Advice from family

Very Important 11%

Very Important 23.4%

Recommendation of friends/Advice from friends

Very Important 9%

Very Important 14.3%

Both surveys indicate that all of these factors can be of great significance for some prospective students, but they also both indicate that recommendations and advice from friends are slightly less likely to be very important in decision-making processes than recommendations from either teachers or family. The biggest disparity in the two sets of findings is in relation to the family influence. The Law Student 2000 findings indicate that such recommendations were in general less significant than the advice of teachers, the two university survey found the reverse. A possible explanation is the terminology used, whereas the Law Student 2000 survey was looking at parental influence, the two university survey was examining the importance of the whole family and it may be simply identifying the importance of other family members in such decision-making processes.

Conclusions

It is perhaps unsurprising that students take into account a wide range of factors and utilise a wide range of sources of information in making their decisions as to course and university. What is interesting is the fact that for so many it is the reputation of the course that is so important in deciding where to apply. This suggests that prospective students are very focused on the marketability of their qualification and perhaps that they see undergraduate study as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself, however this view must be qualified by the Law Student 2000 finding that 80% of law students reported that interest in law was a very important factor in their decision to go to university to study law. Equally interesting is the fact that the most important single source of information appears to be the university prospectus, and that visit days and university websites are also very significant sources of information for many students – possibly a better understanding of what students are looking for in deciding where to apply could enable universities to market themselves even more effectively.

Biography

Paul Catley is a Senior Lecturer in the Law Department and is currently researching the effectiveness of e-learning in enhancing student retention and progression as part of his University Teaching Fellowship.

Contact Details

Paul Catley

Law Department

School of Social Sciences and Law

Oxford Brookes University

Tel: 01865 484906

Fax: 01865 484930

Email: pccatley@brookes.ac.uk

References:

Cuthbert, M., ‘Why do they come? Why don’t they stay?‘, given at the Association of Law Teachers

Recruitment, Access, Retention, Employability – Conference on March 17th, 2004.

United Kingdom Centre for Legal Education’s website, Law Survey 2000 Project research findings. Retrieved from the World Wide Web at: http://www.ukcle.ac.uk/research/cuthbert.html , on March 17th, 2004.

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