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The rise of commuter students…?

  • 20 February 2018
  • By Nick Hillman

One of the lesser-spotted facts in yesterday’s announcements about the new higher education funding review was the Government’s intention to ensure more ‘commuter degrees‘.

I have written about the plight of live-at-home students before. They are different to others, both in terms of their demographics and their outcomes. For example, they are more likely to be of Asian ethnicity and less likely to get a ‘good’ degree (a First or 2:i).

It is not totally clear whether these poorer outcomes arise primarily from the fact that they live at home or whether the factors that encourage them to live at home in the first place (such as poverty) are the main obstacle. (One analysis we published earlier this year using data from the HEPI / HEA Student Academic Experience Survey notes the self-perceived learning gain of students is affected by many other factors more than by whether or not a student lives at home.)

Having more commuter students could save costs. For example, live-at-home students are entitled to a lower maintenance loan (leading to lower write-offs). But, as with the Prime Minister’s desire for ‘a parity of esteem between academic and technical options’, the call for more commuter students has echoes in past decades.

For example, Margaret Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, lived at home while studying at UCL and, during her time as the Secretary of State for Education and Science, this encouraged her to push for more students to do the same. The 1972 education white paper said:

127. The continuing expansion of higher education which the Government are proposing will require substantial provision to be made for the residential accommodation as well as the tuition of students. This is an essential component of the programme and, as will be seen below, substantial provision is being made for it. At the same time, the Government share the frequently-expressed view that it is unrealistic and unnecessary for such a high proportion of students to reside and study at a distance if equally acceptable courses are available to them within daily travelling distance of their homes. In universities, for example, only 16 per cent of students are home based. The case is different in advanced further education, where the proportion of students provided with residential places has always been far lower; but here too the Government will expect polytechnics and colleges to do all they can to encourage students to live at home and not to add to the demand for hostels or the competition for lodgings which is bound to arise in many places from the proposed expansion.

128. Both educational and practical complications make this a difficult question, and opinions may well differ as to the educational and social advantages of residence and the justification for subsidising its expansion. The Government are examining what steps might be taken to reverse the present trend and thus encourage many more students to base themselves at home while studying. They do not believe that this problem can be solved either by this means or by the provision of additional residential facilities alone; there will have to be substantial progress in both of these directions.

147. There remains a third relevant factor. Side by side with the expansion of social demand for higher education will grow the expectation that wherever possible provision of courses should be made within reasonable reach of their homes for part-time students who wish to combine study with employment; there is also a need for a higher proportion of full-time students to be based at home. This reinforces the need to give even more attention than in the past to the geographical distribution of opportunity.

Yet, in 2016/17, only 19 per cent of full-time and sandwich students lived in the home of their parent(s) or guardian(s), which is lower than in the mid-twentieth century.

Seven years ago, I read the single silliest press release I have ever seen on higher education. Coming from the insurance company LV=, it painted a dystopian future arising from the increase in tuition fees to £9,000: ‘Student exodus could leave university cities “ghost towns” by 2020‘.

It was a ridiculous prediction because, when the cost of something goes up, people tend to work harder to ensure they are making the right decision. For many people, the most local higher education will not be the most appropriate.

Indeed, the Coalition undertook an initiative that was specifically designed to tell people from poorer backgrounds to look beyond their local institutions when applying to university.

In other words, yesterday’s announcement on commuter degrees suggests it is not only on the level of tuition fees that the official Government line has recently changed back to that of an earlier time.

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