A growing trend among young people to study close to home may be contributing to a breakdown in the hierarchy of universities, a think tank has said.
Students contribute to democratic debate, institute says
The Higher Education Policy Institute describes a "hierarchy of esteem" in which students apply to the most prestigious places their results allow.
But it says this could collapse as students choose to stay closer to home.
It also says more information is now available, allowing students to make more sophisticated choices.
This includes information about job outcomes, facilities, the number of teaching hours and the quality of tuition.
The institute's views are outlined in a memo prepared for the Commons select committee on education and skills ahead of its review of the future sustainability of the higher education sector.
It says there is a widespread and probably accurate perception that degrees from some universities are more valuable in the job market than others.
Although it may be regrettable, students tend to apply to the most prestigious institutions that they think they can get into, it adds.
Institutions then select the most able and employers favour candidates for jobs from those institutions.
This it describes as "a vicious (or virtuous) circle that perpetuates the hierarchy of esteem".
The memo says that while factors may play a part in breaking this pattern, the only way to ensure it is broken would be for the government to control admissions to universities and deny freedom of choice to students.
This could mean admissions based on catchment areas as in other countries.
'Force for good'
The memo also argues that much more and better information should be made available, with the amount of teaching and private study required in different subjects made clear.
And it highlights the contribution university students make to democratic debate and active citizenship - at a time when ethnic and religious divisions are threatening to fragment society.
It says it is depressing that universities are regarded as the breeding and recruiting ground for fundamentalism.
"All the evidence, though, is that they are much more likely to be a force for good in this respect than for ill, and the role of universities in upholding liberal, democratic structures is essential," it says.