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Can we learn from boarding schools to help commuter students stick?

  • 20 November 2017
  • By Nick Hillman

The boarding-school model of higher education

In Britain, we have a ‘boarding-school model’ of higher education. Enrolling at university as a young full-time student usually means moving away from home for a full-on residential experience. Compared to other countries, this is odd.

Elsewhere, people typically transfer from a local school to a local higher education institution, keeping the same network of friends and family. Even in sparsely-populated countries like Australia, most people live within reach of a large town or city with a range of higher education options. So the big break of leaving home comes later.

Our boarding-school model stems from three bits of history above all.

  1. The dominance of Oxbridge: When Oxford and Cambridge were the only English universities, students had to move there.
  2. The impact of elite schools: Upper-middle class people once dominated higher education and many of them were used to being educated away from home. If you go to a boarding school aged 8, you are not likely to return home to attend university aged 18.
  3. The hierarchy of universities: You cannot demand a specific university lets you in just because you have done relatively well at school and it is on your doorstep, as you can in some countries. A brilliant new article by Keith Vernon, a historian at UCLan, recalls that, when the University of York was getting underway, those behind the new institution ruled out the idea of local recruitment because ‘the catchment area would be the English-speaking world’.

The system we have works for many people. Moving from home to the controlled environment of a university eases the transition to adulthood. But there are disadvantages too, such as the high cost of living away. It is no coincidence that we expect our young students to have a residential experience and simultaneously expect them to borrow much more than in other countries. (Scotland expects lower borrowing than England, but studying near home has tended to be much more common in Scotland so, if anything, this reinforces the argument.)

The plight of commuter students

Aside from cost, there is another, largely unspoken, problem: the plight of live-at-home or commuter students in places where the boarding-school model predominates. If the majority of your peers live together, it is hard to integrate when you live somewhere else.

The evidence on commuter students is patchy. The best report on the issues that I have come across is by Liz Jones and Robert Jones. (I am looking forward to hearing Liz speak later this week at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s conference on ‘Beds, Bricks & Higher Education (II): trends and issues in student residential accommodation’.) But what we know is salutary. Commuter students are:

  • less likely to feel they are learning a lot;
  • less likely to complete their course;
  • less likely to get a ‘good’ degree (a First or 2:i); and
  • less engaged with the non-academic side of student life, such as clubs and societies.

This incomplete list is a quadruple whammy.

It might not matter so much if commuter students were acting on their own freewill. But that seems unlikely, for they have different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. On average, they are poorer and older than other students. Survey after survey show over one-half of Asian students live at home but less than one-quarter of white students do.

Helping live-at-home students

The good news is that helping commuter students is relatively easy. We know they want:

  • university staff to be aware of their needs;
  • more financial support; and
  • dedicated spaces set aside for their use.

Some universities are gripping the problem.

  • The LSE has an Off Campus Mentoring Scheme.
  • St Andrews has a Commuter Students’ Common Room.
  • The University of Manchester (where, to declare an interest, I am a governor) funds a post in the Students’ Union to support commuter students and has established a Living-at-Home Society.

Some have gone even further and implemented what has come to be called the ‘sticky campus’. The term originated in Christchurch, New Zealand, after the devastating earthquake of 2011 meant much of the university had to be rebuilt. In the UK, the sticky campus concept has perhaps reached its zenith at Edge Hill University between Liverpool and Preston.

The campus has been transformed in recent years. It was once full of commuter students but now has lots of new halls of residence, an arts centre used by local residents, students and staff and even a lake with a beach. Most impressive is the attention to detail: they put a special edition of the board game Monopoly in every student flat. This familiarises freshers with the campus rather than the streets of London.

But not every university has the land or resources or can take such risks over such a long period. Moreover, there will always be some students who have to live at home, perhaps because of family or caring responsibilities. For some people, that is the right option and their universities can actually benefit from it because commuter students help root universities in their local communities, which is perhaps needed more than ever at the moment.

Learning from boarding schools

Thus, we must think creatively to ensure all students feel they belong at their institution. That could even mean doing something that is surprisingly controversial in higher education policymaking: learning from schools – and specifically those boarding schools mentioned at the start. Long ago, they developed the concept of ‘day boarders’, who are members of a residential unit (a boarding house) while not actually living there.

Is it worth exploring giving commuter students membership of halls of residence (and other forms of student accommodation), with access to the facilities and the opportunities for socialisation – just not to a regular bed? It would cost little and could quickly pay for itself through better academic outcomes, more student engagement and lower drop-out rates. Just a thought.

Nick Hillman is Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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