Tradition, not consumer choice, is continuing to drive students' selection of university, according to academic researchers in Edinburgh.
Moves in England to create a more market-based system in higher education since 1998 have not changed the pecking order of institutions, the British Educational Research Association's annual conference heard this week.
David Raffe and Linda Croxford, of the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Educational Sociology, told the conference there was scant sign of students choosing universities for their quality of teaching.
Instead, students had simply continued to prioritise older, more prestigious universities, especially the Russell Group, over newer institutions.
And institutions in both Scotland and England remained highly "stratified" in terms of the proportions of privately educated applicants they admitted: the older the type of university, the more entrants it still had from the independent sector, the research found.
Professor Raffe and Dr Croxford analysed student application and entrance data from Ucas for higher education providers in Scotland and England from 1996 to 2010, looking at social class, private education and the proportion of entrants admitted through clearing.
They conclude: "Taking all our indicators together, we find no evidence that the (pre-existing) status distinctions have become less important. This stability is the more remarkable given the rapid expansion and institutional changes in HE during these years: the number of entrants through Ucas increased by 65 per cent over the period."
The research also sought to discover whether the move to a more market- based system in England through the introduction of fees (pound;1,000 a year in 1998; up to pound;3,000 in 2006) would influence would-be students who might discriminate on the basis of teaching quality and service. But they found no real change to "institutional hierarchies", particularly in England.
The findings suggest that the introduction in England of fees up to pound;9,000 will have little or no effect on the pattern of student choices.
Professor Raffe said: "Instead, we simply have this hierarchy, which seems self-perpetuating in lots of ways."
How stable is the stratification of Higher Education in England and Scotland? by Raffe, David, University of Edinburgh; Croxford, Linda, University of Edinburgh.
Research by the University of Glasgow has found that students from deprived backgrounds who are accepted with lower grades under its widening access scheme perform just as well as their middle-class peers with better qualifications.
The study of 1,000 students who went to Glasgow via its Top-Up programme over the past decade showed they had higher progression rates into second year than those entering from state schools in more affluent areas.
Since 2001, 17.4 per cent of "Top-Up" students dropped out compared to 18.1 per cent of those from more traditional backgrounds.