The University Vibes League: This is why certain unis are more popular over time

Manchester is doing absolute bits

To this day, I still cannot believe that as fresh-faced 17-year-olds with UCAS Track accounts, we all picked our universities purely based on vibes. If you were finishing college around 2017, everyone cool was going to Manchester, so naturally, you applied to Manchester. Or, if you didn’t have the grades to go to Manchester, you applied for Man Met. Both of these unis could have placed 143rd for your chosen course but you didn’t care (as long as your mum and dad didn’t notice), because of the vibes.

A couple of years before that, Leeds was the uni of choice and everyone with an ounce of edginess filed their personal statements into that singular UCAS code, hoping to one day drop a pinger in Warehouse wearing nought but glitter, a colourful vintage windbreaker and beaten up New Balances (this was 2015, times were different).

Before that, when being indie and alt was the popularity norm around 2010, everyone and their mam wanted to move to Sheffield so they could feel a little closer to Alex Turner. Now, over 10 years on, teens on TikTok romanticise the University of Edinburgh so much that applications are genuinely rising.

Because this is the crazy thing: these trends are reflected in cold hard facts. You think Manchester is inexplicably popular and everyone who’s anyone seems to apply there? You’d be right. Manchester received almost double the number of average uni applications last year. And yes, Sheffield Hallam actually did have a peak in its applications growth rate in 2010 (peak Arctic Monkey’s fan base year).

Using over 15,000 pieces of UCAS applicant data from 2006 to 2020, it’s possible to isolate these trends and chart the consistently most popular universities for the past 15 years. Whilst we cannot scientifically prove that Fresh Meat, TikTok and Arctic Monkeys had any part to play, we can do our best to explain the peaks and troughs using the one thing we at The Tab know best: uni stereotypes.

First, let’s introduce the big boys. These are the 10 universities who have remained the most consistently popular (highest number of applications) year on year. From 2006 to 2020, these universities shone out from the rest and had a significantly higher amount of applications than the average. The big bois, in order of dominance, are as follows: Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Man Met, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol, King’s, UCL and Sheffield Hallam.

They are well known, big unis with relatively large intakes. That explains some of it. The majority of them are Russell Group, meaning they’re high in the league table and considered “good unis” in mum-and-dad-at-dinnertime speak. But that can’t explain it all. So what else is really going on to explain this popularity? Vibes. That’s what.

In general trends, every university took a dip in 2008 which we can assume is not due to vibes, but more so the financial crash. The opposite of vibes. Before that though, in 2006/2007, Bristol University experienced a peak in applications much less easily explained away by economics. We call it: The Skins effect. Skins began in 2007, it was set in Bristol and was an instant hit. The series ran until 2013 but had waning popularity, so the Skins effect on Bristol didn’t last for long, just enough to drive a peak in that one year.

The peak is reflected in the growth rate for Bristol Uni applications that year, which went up 15.89 per cent, 9.55 percentage points higher than the average application growth rate for 2006/7. Then the economy went bust and everyone slumped into a sad, sad trough, reflected in the average number of applicants decreasing by 6.72 per cent.

But once applications started to rise again in 2009-10, the stand out player became Sheffield Hallam. This was during the peak of English landfill indie music and Sheffield became well known as the indie uni city (Arctic Monkeys, Pulp and Bring Me The Horizon all hail from there), so applications flooded in.

At the same time, a notable trend emerges: all of the ex-polytechnic universities start to do really well. Hallam and Manchester Met experience huge spikes, with 2011 being the only year in the past 15 years for another university to overtake Manchester University in number of applications. This was what 2011 applicants would call “the rush”. The rush to get into uni before the £9k fees hit. Therefore, anyone who ever wanted to go to uni was going to uni in 2011, before the fees came in during 2012. Thus, universities with lower entry grades experienced a spike.

And predictably, the year later when £9k fees were introduced, they tanked. So did pretty much every English uni, though the ex-polys were hit the worst. Edinburgh University, however, hit a massive peak with a 15 per cent increase in applicants, with more Scottish applicants choosing their capital city uni to benefit from the free fees now that English options were six grand dearer.

Eventually all universities recovered from the hit of £9k fees and applications rose universally again, though some more than others. In the latter half of the 2010s, four victors emerge. Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh and Man Met all have consistently higher levels of applicants than other universities for most of the late 2010s (though Man Met takes a wee dip in 2020).

These are the standout popular unis of the last eight years. And if you wondered why everyone in the world seemed to be applying to them, it’s because they are. Manchester received a whopping 79,925 applications last year, over 23,000 more than the average. The Manchester Effect can be explained largely through vibe, reputation, the fact its intake is the second largest in the UK (UCL is highest) and one other thing: Fresh Meat.

Fresh Meat, which began in 2011, is the only well known show which centres around a UK uni (the fictional “Manchester Medlock” University). The year it started, Man Met experienced a massive hike in applications and UoM began its consistent exponential climb. Since then, Manchester has ruled as the undefeated king of uni popularity.

Its two closest rivals, Edi and Leeds, have attained similar but not quite equal popularity by also becoming notably “good vibes” unis. Leeds has always maintained a druggy, edgy persona and so has been consistently well performing for the last 15 years. Edi’s applications have seen more of a speedy incline, especially between 2018-20 where applications went up by nearly 4,000. This peak, especially in 2020, could be explained by the TikTok teens both domestic and abroad romanticising the city extensively and fully making “Edinburgh Uni TikTok” a phenomenon in itself. And so the vibiest places – Manchester, Leeds and Edi – really do reign supreme. That’s the power of uni vibes – they literally trump everything else.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

I dated a boy from every uni in the country so you don’t have to

We asked an expert why this lockdown feels the most hopeless

I’ve paid £2,900 for a uni room that I’m legally not allowed to live in