Commuting students: a problem or an opportunity?

Author: Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor, Middlesex University, and Bridge Group Fellow

Division between ‘commuters’ and ‘movers’ in higher education

In 2017 David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere was published, setting out an argument that the UK has become divided between ‘somewhere’ and ‘anywhere’ people. This divide, he suggests, is reflected in differences in the values people hold and how and whether they vote in elections, and was starkly revealed in the outcome of the EU referendum.

The ‘somewheres’ are people attached to where they grew up. They live close to family and often have low or middle incomes. The ‘anywheres’ are people who are geographically mobile, in professional careers and affluent.

One of the key markers of this divide is whether someone is university educated or not. Most of the anywheres are graduates while most of the somewheres are not.

There is, however, a similar divide within higher education itself: between students who stay at home and commute to study and those who move away to a residential university.

Echoing Goodhart’s analysis of the wider societal schism, this divide is not only between students who tend to be from lower income families (the commuters) and students from more affluent families (the movers) but is also reflected in the perceived prestige of their institutions and their degrees.

The commuters tend to attend the generally less selective post-1992 universities – their more economically disadvantaged circumstances being associated with lower attainment at school – while the movers tend to attend more selective Russell Group institutions that exclude lower attaining students.

Data from the HEPI academic student experience survey show that only 16% of students who choose to live at home attend a Russell Group university, where they account for just 14% of students, while 62% attend a post-92 university, where they account for 32% of students. In some institutions the proportion of commuter students is even higher: over half at Middlesex for example.

Continuing to live in the parental home while attending university is quite normal in many other countries but unusual in the UK, where just less than a quarter of all students live at home and commute. The figure a few decades ago was considerably smaller. Much of the welcome expansion of participation in higher education has been from commuter students.

The need to shift away from an expensive residential model of study in higher education

Eric Robinson in his brilliant 1968 book The New Polytechnics describes this peculiar British tradition of moving away to university as a continuation of the colonial boarding school model used to educate the children of absent parents away running the Empire. It is similarly associated with the notion of ‘character building’ by becoming more independent and mixing with different people.

The reality could not be further from the truth. There are few more character building demands than juggling study for a degree with long commutes and financial hardship. And, rather than mixing with different people, the generally more selective residential universities recruit students who are very similar to each other.

The residential model is also expensive, with taxpayer supported student loans paying millions of pounds each year to student landlords. It also often puts intense pressure on local housing markets, pushing out local families or creating ghettos of young people living in halls.

Student fees were introduced in England because it was claimed that general taxation could no longer fund mass participation in higher education. Yet, part of this problem is that we have such an expensive model in the sector with residential universities.

The Labour Party is already committed to abolishing fees, but this will be very expensive with our current system. The Conservatives have already started abolishing fees with degree apprenticeships funded, in essence, by corporation tax.

Given a choice between abolishing or reducing fees and reintroducing maintenance grants – but only for students who choose to live at home with family and study locally – or continuing with high fees and maintenance loans but with hundreds of thousands of students relocating for three or four years, I would choose the former. This need not deny the choice to move away from home; that could still be available for a fee and with a maintenance loan. The US system of low fees if you study in-state and high fees if you go out of state is a precedent.

Improving graduate outcomes for commuter students 

Some argue that residential universities achieve better outcomes but this is likely to be more about their intakes. Commuting students living at home are more at risk of dropping out of their course, but this is conflated with other factors like financial hardship, part-time employment and having less time for independent study.

At present, commuter students are the Cinderella students of the sector, facing high public transport costs when seniors enjoy generous concessionary fares, a lack of car parking space, timetables that add to the number of daily commutes, learning resources that are not designed for study while commuting or at home, a lack of support to help build cohort identity, and even sometimes being excluded from a class because the train ran late.

At Middlesex we are working hard to create a much better offer for our commuting students. It would be good if policy makers started doing the same, rather than all too often viewing higher education through the lens of their own experience of ‘going away’ to university.