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Student residence in England: A world unto itself

  • 30 December 2019
  • By Holly Henderson

This blog was kindly contributed by Holly Henderson, an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham.

Higher education is all too often used as if it is synonymous with university, in spite of the fact that higher education is also offered in 86% of the 257 colleges of further education in England and higher education makes up almost 20 per cent of teaching in FE colleges in Scotland. University is therefore also equated with something more nebulous and abstract – ‘university life’.

In England in particular, as William Whyte’s recent report demonstrates, the hidden meaning of ‘university life’ is in essence migration to purpose-built student accommodation, surrounded by purpose-built student social and study spaces. His report considers the tradition of student residence in the context of successive waves of growth in higher education provision. In Whyte’s analysis, the seemingly unshakeable tradition of student migration in the UK appears as a spatial language of privilege. For, while Oxford and Cambridge hold sway as the epitome of elite higher education, so their long-established history of student residence dominates as the collectively imagined ideal. It follows that an institution without the tradition or the provision for students to become residents of the institution risks falling short.

This blog post starts with a phrase from Whyte’s report, in which he describes the generic student residence as ‘guarded and gated, a world unto itself’ (p. 42). Using this as a starting point, I want to think about the ways in which traditions of student residence operate according to particular sets of spatial and temporal rules which, while they remain unspoken, reinforce the dominance of the student residence as part of ‘university life’, perpetuating inequalities within the higher education system.

The peculiarity of the patterns of mobility associated with higher education in the UK are best viewed from the margins of the sector. In research with students studying for degrees at Further Education colleges, I gained insights into these patterns that are not easily visible from within the university campus. Two examples of this peculiarity in particular stand out.

The first was highlighted by a student who told me that she had in fact begun her degree at a nearby university, but had quickly revised her decision and moved to the further education college within weeks of the beginning of her course. She had commuted by train or car to the university on a daily basis, and had found herself excluded from the movements of her peers because of the proximity of their residence to the lecture halls and to social spaces. Unlike her, they were able to go back to their rooms between lectures while she was stranded – home was too far away and, despite a purpose-built campus, there was no space built with her movements in mind. In the more common way of seeing student mobility, this student was ‘less mobile’ than her peers because she had not relocated in order to begin her degree. However, her daily movements were much more complex and wide-ranging than those of her ‘more mobile’ peers who had relocated in order to study: their patterns of movement in fact relied upon very small distances between living, social and learning spaces.

The second example is taken from a recent project funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education, which looked at access to and experiences of higher education on islands with relationships to the UK. Though Whyte notes that the ‘four devolved nations’ have different approaches to and histories of student residence, he does not include in his analysis crown dependencies of the UK such as the Isle of Man and the Falkland and Channel islands. Among the substantial barriers for prospective students hoping to study at a UK university, one of the most significant is that it is hugely expensive to travel between such places and mainland UK. Unlike their peers from the UK mainland, then, it is much more difficult for students from these islands, as well as from the Scottish islands, to travel home for the weekend, or even for holidays. This barrier highlights another unspoken rule of student residence; for many students, relocation to university accommodation is in fact only partial, and it is possibly bolstered by the ease of travel between university and ‘home’ residences.

What these examples highlight is that the tradition of student residence in higher education in England is only half the story; the smaller, everyday patterns of mobility that surround and make up this tradition are more difficult to capture or to challenge. In addition to the spatial practices highlighted so far, I want to point out that residence in higher education is often also associated with a particular temporal moment in a student’s life. Living at university, as well as being synonymous with ‘university life’, is also culturally understood as an extended transition from childhood to adulthood, during which important lessons are learned about independence, doing laundry and not using flatmates’ milk without replacing it. Other researchers have shown that these are particular (and particularly normative) ideas of independence, rather than the only possible routes through which to reach adulthood.

To me, it is also important to look at the assumptions made about age in this view of ‘university life’. When we think of student residences, do we automatically imagine an eighteen-year-old leaving the family home for the first time? If so, what space does this collective imaginary leave for mature students? It is hardly surprising that students I spoke to who attended their local college felt both that they were not ‘doing it properly’ because they were not living in university halls and, moreover, that they were excluded from doing so by their age and stage of life.

The rules of the ‘world unto itself’ that is the university residence should be noticed, de-naturalised and questioned. As Whyte argues, it would be useful to begin with a discussion of what exactly residence is for in higher education. Perhaps, however, it might be possible to interrogate the terms of the question a little more, to start to resist the orthodoxy of university residence that, as Whyte points out, has changed so little over time. Perhaps it is time to ask what is gained, rather than what is missed, if students do not relocate for their degree study. What are students who live on campus missing out on? What rich life experiences are part of a commuter student’s spatial practices and how might resident students access those?

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