The presentation and role of place in prospective student decision making
: a case study of the UK undergraduate market

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The UK Higher Education market is crowded and as a result, universities work hard to recruit and retain students. Prospective students face an overwhelming array of possibilities in their choice not only in what to study, but also in terms of where to study. Place is an important factor in decision making.
The link between a university and its ‘place’ is inextricable. As the wider context of a university’s service environment, the university is nested within its place. Yet as an intrinsic part of a university identity, place is also nested within the university. Despite this interconnection, the way in which a university portrays its place has not been fully explored. Place is acknowledged as a driver of student choice of university. Student choice of university is largely an emotional decision; for students to choose a university, they need to feel a sense of belonging to the institution. The integrated relationship between university and place means that place contributes to the atmosphere and overall feel of a university and whether or not a student ‘fits in’. But how place impacts the mood and impression of a university, has not been investigated.
This research is underpinned by an interpretivist philosophy, taking the view that reality is subjective. Through a series of four separate and distinct studies, this research explores the decision-making processes of both universities and students to understand how place is presented and how it influences student choice of university. Data for each of the studies was collected sequentially and the findings from each study were used to inform the design and method of subsequent studies.
Through qualitative analysis of data, a number of findings were identified. Firstly, that place offers the university a peripheral servicescape in three dimensions: Facilities, Community and the Landscape. Despite the opportunities presented for differentiation by the diverse characteristics of UK towns and cities, findings in this study provide evidence of institutional isomorphism when it comes to presenting place. Driven by the common desire to offer the prospective student the comfort of a familiar environment alongside the excitement of new opportunities, universities convey their locations as homogenous in terms of both form and vocabulary. For the prospective student, place needs to offer a sense of belonging and the ability to escape. As a result, students look for evidence of homophily in the peripheral servicescape dimension of community and seek a sense of restoration from the landscape.
The significance of the landscape extends beyond student choice of university. Over time, the locational capital offered by place increases and facilitates the development of place attachment in students.
This research makes an original contribution to both theory and practice. The primary theoretical contribution is the creation of a conceptual model of the holistic university servicescape, showing three dimensions of place – Facilities, Community and Landscape – as a peripheral servicescape around the university’s collective physical, social and digital servicescapes. In providing this, the thesis addresses the call to understand the significance of the environment beyond an organisation’s control. This research contributes to education practice through providing a clear set of recommendations to university marketing decision makers to enable the university to better manage its relationship with place. In doing so, the university can address its civic responsibilities and enhance its recruitment of undergraduate students.
Date of AwardApr 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorDaniel Francis Thomas Nunan (Supervisor) & Mona Nassar (Supervisor)

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