Forget university rankings, open days are the biggest factor in student choice

Open days are the main way students choose their future university. shutterstock

According to the Times Higher University Rankings, which positions more than 1,200 institutions worldwide, the University of Oxford (which came top), the University of Cambridge (second), Imperial College London (9th) and University College London (14th) are the only UK universities in the top 25.

Other high-scoring institutions in the UK include the London School of Economics and Political Science (ranked five in the UK and 26 overall), the University of Manchester (ranked eight in the UK and 57 overall) and the University of Glasgow (ranked 11 in the UK and 93 overall).

Rankings have always been a popular way for universities seeking to quantify how much “better” they are than others. But over recent years this has moved beyond league tables to universities making broader claims – such as being in the “top 1% in the world” or “number one in the UK”.

In 2017 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) forced six institutions to change their marketing campaigns and remove claims they couldn’t prove to be true. The ASA is now updating its advertising guidelines for UK universities, to prevent institutions from being able to make further unsubstantiated claims.

Real-life experience

When it comes to actually selecting a university to apply for, research shows that students’ perceptions are heavily influenced by anecdotal evidence from friends or family. Websites and prospectuses – where most of these claims are made – also help to shape impressions and support or refute perceptions.

But, while initial impressions are all very well, they only help students to compile a short list of universities to visit. And as our research shows, when it comes to choosing a university, there is no substitute for personal experience – with many students making their decision after a visit or open day.

So while location, nightlife and transport links, all come into it, one of the most important factors to students is their experience of the open day and the feel they get from the town or city. A previous study has also shown that one of the most important factors for students when selecting an institution, is the academic appeal of a university. This is followed by the institution’s overall reputation – as well as its ability to boost future career prospects.

Fancy new buildings

At a time when many universities are embarking on ambitious building developments, it might be a concern to realise that students aren’t impressed by fancy buildings and state-of-the-art facilities – they expect them. Reflecting on the escalating cost of tuition fees, students need to be able to see their money is being spent on something they will benefit from.

Snazzy buildings at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Shutterstock

Beyond the fancy buildings, when it comes to the open day experience our research shows it is the social encounters that provide the greatest opportunity for leaving a positive impression in students’ minds – and enables them to rank one institution as “better” than another.

What students want

Most open days offer course talks by a member of staff and our research showed these talks create the biggest impression for prospective students. Students are drawn towards institutions where staff are not just knowledgeable, but enthusiastic and passionate about their course.

Being able to interact with staff is also a key factor in decision making. Students are much more likely to choose institutions where they leave feeling that staff have taken the time to build a rapport and engage with them.

The impact of social encounters is not just limited to interactions with staff either – both students and local residents are important too. Genuine encounters with existing students who speak positively about their institution are key. And students feel reassured to visit a town centre with seemingly happy, friendly local residents.

A good fit

As well as reflecting on whether they feel comfortable with the staff, our research revealed that prospective students also consider the other visitors on the day and assess whether or not they feel they “fit in” with the other prospective students.

Open days give prospective students an insight into university life. Shutterstock

Ultimately, when the social environment is at its best, a university can both excite and reassure a student and generate an all-important sense of belonging. And staff and existing students are key players in this process.

So while the ASA is busy reviewing the validity of various universities’ claims to be the “top university”, prospective students continue to make their choices based on their actual experience. So a university could well be in the top 1% of universities worldwide – but without genuine, friendly and enthusiastic staff and students to build a sense of belonging, it won’t make it to top place on a UCAS form.

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