Students continue to choose universities based on reputation and history rather than quality of teaching and cost, research suggests.

A new study has found that the idea that students now pick institutions based on factors which the university can control, like price and degree content, is "questionable".

Instead the traditional pecking order of universities remains, with individuals preferring older, Russell Group institutions over newer ones.

The study, by researchers at Edinburgh University, analysed student application and entrance data for universities in England and Scotland between 1996 and 2010.

Universities were split into four different categories; leading Russell Group institutions, others which were universities before 1992 when higher education was expanded, former polytechnics that became universities after 1992, and other institutions which offer higher education courses but do not have university status.

The researchers looked for changes in application and entry patterns to see if there had been any movement over the years in the universities preferred by students.

They also examined the quality of qualifications held by students who applied to each university, and those held by those that studied there.

The paper argues that if the introduction of tuition fees led to a move towards a market-based system, with universities competing for students on areas that they can control, like teaching quality, degree content and price, this could lead to changes over the years in the universities preferred by students.

Tuition fees of £1,000 a year were introduced in England in 1998, and raised to £3,000 in 2006.

But the study found a "stable hierarchy". In both 1996 and 2010 students preferred Russell Group universities, followed by other pre-1992 institutions, non-universities and post-1992 institutions, with very little change.

It concludes that taking all the indicators together, there is "no evidence" that distinctions in university status have become less important.

"This stability is the more remarkable given the rapid expansion and institutional changes in higher education during these years: the number of entrants through UCAS increased by 65% over the period," it says.

The study adds: "The stronger conclusion from our study is that institutional hierarchies are resistant to change, and that it is unrealistic to expect any but the most powerful of interventions to have a radical impact.

"Moreover, the assumption underlying market policies, that consumers base their higher education choices on factors that institutions can change such as the content, quality and price of their programmes, and not on factors beyond their control such as their history and their past reputation, is questionable."

The paper, due to be presented at the British Educational Research Association conference in Manchester today, also looked at the social class of applicants, examining the proportion of students from a "professional and managerial" background and the numbers educated privately.

The findings show little movement between 1996 and 2010.

In 1996, 72% of Russell Group entrants were from a professional background and in 2010 it was 60%.

Some 63% of entrants to other pre-1992 universities were from this background in 1996, compared to 49% in 2010, and 49% of entrants to post-1992 universities were from professional homes in 1996, against 39% in 2010.

The study also found that the proportion of privately educated entrants to Russell Group universities moved from 32% in 1996 to 29% in 2010.

Among other pre-1992 universities, and post-1992 institutions the 2010 figures were 15% and 4% respectively, both down on 1996.