How students use data to choose a university

With Britain’s new higher education funding structure in place and increased competition in student recruitment, every university wants to know what students are looking for and how they are making choices. This was the topic of a session at last week’s annual conference of the Association of University Directors of Estates, held at Warwick University.

The AUDE conference from 25-27 March brought together directors of estates and facilities from universities across the UK, and provided opportunities for sharing best practice through networking and speakers.

One session examined the use of data in student choice, and provided a chance to explore the ways that students are (and are not) using data to make decisions. While all of the speakers had numerous insights to share, space is limited so I’ll focus on just some of their insights.

What students research

An outline of what students research when choosing a university was presented by Jenni Allen, head of public services at Which? University, a free, independent website launched last year to help people applying to university by providing data as well as impartial advice, tools to make comparisons and anecdotal insights from students. It details nearly 30,000 courses and 262 institutions.

Which? surveyed prospective students last year and found that the most important topics they want to know about are course content (77%), academic reputation (57%), distance from home (57%) and quality of academic facilities (57%).

At the other end of the spectrum the least-researched elements of university life include flexible learning options (5%), pastoral support (6%) and the reputation of the student union (11%).

When asked whether they could easily find the information they were looking for to inform their decision-making, 58% of students said they could. Of those who could not, the areas where they needed more information were employment prospects (35%), extra-curricular activities (32%), course structure (30%) and accommodation (27%).

There is a lot of useful information available to help students make good choices, but this alone is not the full story, said Allen. Information on its own has limitations – it can be incomplete, fail to give the full picture, or be meaningless or misleading. What’s more, people need help interpreting and contextualising and comparing data.

Allen finished by saying that there will always be a crucial role for good-quality advice from careers advisors, alumni and parents, to help students work out what’s important to them and how to get there.

Where students source data

James Kennedy, from the University of Warwick international office and formerly of the British Council, shared his knowledge on the things that international students look for in choosing a university, and the resources they consult to help them do this. With 8,000 of Warwick’s 20,000 students coming from outside the UK, his is a voice of experience.

So where do international students source their data?

The university website is of course a huge source of information, deliberately not translated into multiple languages and therefore targeting only students with good enough English to study in the UK.

Social media is also increasingly important, and something that Warwick is taking very seriously, with a number of channels established across different markets, all in their native languages.

With all of this burgeoning technology, it stands to reason that the days of the printed prospectus are, if not dead, then numbered – usurped by the iPads that Warwick recruitment teams are now using.

However, above and beyond any of these factors, it is word of mouth that is the single most important factor in educating prospective international students; which is why Warwick alumni are instrumental in recruitment campaigns abroad.

The testimony of a recent student is far more impactful, powerful and authentic than an academic, agent or website can ever be, Kennedy said.

After examining where international students get their data, Kennedy looked at what factors they consider when choosing universities.

Rankings, both international and UK university and subject rankings, are the number one factor – holding more sway with an international audience than a UK one. Fee information and cost-of-living estimates are also very important, alongside information about scholarships and other sources of funding, especially for postgraduates.

Visas, of course, are also important, and while universities cannot do much about national policy or international preconceptions around visas, making visa information as clear as possible on the university website can potentially encourage students to apply.

Other factors include the quality and availability of accommodation; closeness to London; employability of graduates; study facilities; social and sports facilities; and faith provision.

A (recent) student voice

As a recent student herself Anna Chowcat, postgraduate officer at Warwick Students’ Union, was arguably the best-informed member of the panel, sharing her views on whether or not students make decisions based on data.

And the answer to that question? Yes and no.

Chowcat argued that recent changes to higher education funding and fees, the increased competitiveness of the job market and higher costs of living mean that current students are more concerned than previous cohorts about where they choose to study.

However, while some of the data address prospective students’ concerns – for example, average salary and destinations of leavers – other data do not. The data on assessment and contact time are unlikely to mean much to a 17-year-old who has little or no experience of university life.

The same can be said for the league tables – for Anna, the language of league tables is ‘university speak’ and vague, and therefore inaccessible to prospective students making big life decisions.

In fact, what students need is true, personal insight from other students – a resource that is increasingly available to them.

Two examples are the Alternative Prospectus used at Edge Hill and Cambridge universities, which enables people to speak directly to students, and social media platforms such as ‘The Student Room’ – the UK’s biggest student community providing forums, anecdotal and conversational-based evidence.


In summary, the experts agreed that there is a plethora of information available to students, and that some of it can be useful in helping prospective students choose their institutions more and more carefully, as the current environment dictates.

However, they also all agreed that nothing can replace the power of hearing real-life experiences and receiving good quality advice.

* Alan Burrell is the director of estates for the Open University and an AUDE member.