Students continue to choose universities based on reputation and history rather than quality of teaching and cost, research has suggested.
A new study has found that the idea that students now pick institutions based on factors which the university can control, such as 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 and presented at the British Educational Research Association conference in Manchester, 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.
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."