This blog is written by Liz Barnes, Vice-Chancellor, Staffordshire University. It originally appeared as a case study in HEPI’s report Homeward Bound: Defining, understanding and aiding ‘commuter students’ by David Maguire and David Morris.
Staffordshire University has 56 per cent of full-time undergraduate students with the same home address as their term-time address. Our HESA data classifies 36 per cent of our students from the local area, not all of whom live at home. Therefore, we have a significant number of students who have long distances to travel. We are in the top 20 for short, medium and long-distance commuters; some of our students are commuting more than 152 miles. As 36 per cent of our students are mature, with family commitments and caring responsibilities, the data are not surprising.
In addition to the challenges presented by commuter students, where evidence has shown that they are likely to have poorer outcomes and are less satisfied with their experience, 40 per cent of our students come from areas classified as among the most deprived in the country and many fit several indicators of disadvantage. It is not surprising therefore that retention remains one of our greatest challenges.
In order to try and better understand our students, their drivers and ambitions, we have undertaken an analysis identifying student segments that has helped us consider how we shape their experience both in their formal studies and the wider experience at university. Each discipline has a different mix and it is important this is understood by course teams.
For example, in Nursing and Midwifery, a plurality of our students can be described as ‘carers’. They know why they are here and what they want to do when they graduate. They are focused, like to be organised and care about others / what others think of them. The second largest category are ‘jugglers’, those who are not necessarily where they thought they would be at this stage of life. These students often do not really feel they can get involved in the wider university experience.
However, in Games Design for instance, we have:
- ‘enthusiasts’, for whom their subject is their passion and who are not as bothered about the social experience of university; and
- ‘flow-goers’, who tend not to stray from their comfort zone and therefore tend not to get involved in the wider university experience.
We know students who are more engaged with the university, spending more time on the campus and building up a peer-support network, are more likely to succeed and to be more satisfied with their student experience. We are currently implementing a student journey project where we consider the student experience from first contact to becoming alumni, with a particular focus on students that live at home.
Not all parts of the plan are yet in place, but they include:
- residential induction opportunities enabling students to build their networks and get to know more about the campus and activities;
- a quiet induction for those that need more support in settling in and making connections;
- a more diverse sports offer, spread across the week at different times of day and facilitating more casual participation;
- reorganising the timetable to reduce the number of days spent on campus, while trying to maximise engagement when they are present; and
- supporting car-share and negotiating reduced travel costs.
We now have a thriving parents, carers and mature students network. Using the National Union of Students’s Ten Steps Towards a Child-Friendly Campus we have begun to make our campus more family / child friendly, enabling them to spend time on campus. We have webpages and resources designed specifically for this group.
This is all just the start. As we continue to develop and refurbish our campus, one of our key principles is the ‘sticky campus’: developing spaces that will enable and encourage students to spend more time on campus. Understanding our students’ lifestyles, ambitions, and challenges is key to providing the right kind of university experience, student support and courses that will enable all to achieve their potential.