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Minding the gap for commuter students

  • 15 October 2019
  • By Malcolm Press

The residential model may be firmly embedded in UK higher education, writes Manchester Metropolitan University Vice-Chancellor Malcolm Press, but a student-centred approach is more important than one centred on a view of where students should live.

This guest blog is based on the remarks Professor Press made at the HEPI / UPP event on students’ living arrangements at the Conservative Party Conference fringe earlier this month.

The excellence of UK higher education is rooted in our high standards, institutional autonomy and student choice. The latter encompasses not only where to study but also where to live, for those students fortunate to have the option to be selective.

There are arguments both for and against the residential model, which is prevalent in UK higher education today. At Manchester Metropolitan University, however, we have large numbers of both residential and commuter students. It is important, therefore, that we understand how the mode of accommodation affects student experience and outcomes and how students are best supported to make the most of their time at university.

We know that a student’s chances of success are higher when they have a range of experiences outside the classroom, from a year abroad to local volunteering. The benefits of experiences such as these extend to residential accommodation, where students build new life and social skills. Students who commute from home are less likely to take advantage of experiences outside of the classroom such as a placement year and less likely to be a member of a student union society. As a consequence, progression, degree outcomes and employment prospects are negatively impacted.

However, causality is more complex, as commuter students are more likely to also come from other groups where attainment gaps exist: black and minority ethnic students; students from deprived areas; students who have entered university with qualifications other than A Levels; and mature students. As a sector, we are getting much better at using data to understand how these factors interrelate but multiple approaches to resolving them are required.

For commuter students, there are three overarching strands of support that are required to compensate for the absence of a residential experience.

The first is to ensure that we use data on the journey of individual students to inform the support that we give them. We are investing in a Student Journey Transformation Programme that aims to ensure we have a clear picture of each student and their needs. The approach uses technology in an innovative way to support students and enable staff to identify any potential issues at an early stage.

The second dimension is campus design, where even simple things such as lockers can make a difference. Lockers mean commuter students do not have to carry around a day’s worth of materials. This removes a practical barrier to taking part in activities and events. Access to plug sockets means they can charge laptops and phones, supporting them to work on campus.

We are also working to provide more areas for students to spend time between timetabled sessions and to build their academic community. If the only options are studying in the library or sitting in a catering outlet where there is an expectation to buy something, there is a greater likelihood that students will drift off campus.

Thirdly, clear, sensible timetabling helps students plan their week, including travel, work and family commitments. While we have long provided personalised timetables for each student, we are looking at what more we can do. In one faculty, we have identified programmes with high numbers of students with caring responsibilities and scheduled lectures for a restricted number of days with start and finish times that accommodate these responsibilities. We need to understand the effects of this pilot, especially how well it supports students, before extending it.

Of course, better support, better space and better timetabling enhance the experience of all students. We also need to be mindful of modes of study that do not necessary lend themselves to the residential model, including mature students, degree apprentices, and online learners. For all groups of students, we must be relentlessly student-centred. We must understand our students, their lives and their expectations and we must respond. Whether residential, commuter, part-time or online, every student deserves to be fully supported, however far they travel.

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