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In the wake of a global pandemic, will students look closer to home?

  • 29 May 2020
  • By Richard O'Kelly & Carys Fisher

This blog was kindly contributed by Richard O’Kelly, Head of Analytical Data, UCAS and Carys Fisher, Senior Policy Executive, UCAS.

‘Going away to university’ is engrained in our culture The UK’s student population is not constrained to studying at a local university, as is typically the case in the rest of Europe, but encouraged to explore choices further afield, in many cases, across all four countries of the UK. This is particularly apparent amongst UK 18-year-olds.

Leaving home is often seen as a rite of passage for today’s young people who see university as not only an opportunity to study a subject they love, but also to spread their wings. Indeed, for younger applicants in particular, being set upon a ‘close to home’ university experience is atypical. In the 2019 admissions cycle, a mere 8 per cent of all UK 18-year-old applicants made all their choices within 30 minutes of their home compared to 35 per cent of students aged 20 or more.

The above may hang true in conventional circumstances, but alas these are not. This year’s school leavers, and indeed those that are to follow, will have experienced exceptional restrictions on their movement and liberties. Will several months of lockdown affect their desire to flee the nest?

So, what do we already know about student mobility? We know that proximity is a key factor in student decision-making, with 80 per cent of applicants telling us that a university or college’s location relative to their home was important or very important and 37 per cent specifically referencing the ability to live at home. We also know that a student’s propensity to travel varies according to certain characteristics.

As UCAS analysis has previously shown, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to choose local universities and colleges – in 2019, POLAR4 Q1 applicants (those least likely to enter higher education) were 50 per cent more likely than POLAR4 Q5 applicants (those most likely to enter higher education) to make all their choices within 30 minutes of their home (10 per cent of POLAR Q1 compared to 6 per cent of POLAR Q5). Equally, students applying to certain subjects (education, computer science, nursing are especially popular) tend to study closer to home. We also know that students wishing to study at a Scottish university or college often travel further than those enrolling elsewhere in the UK. Meanwhile, the average drive time for those enrolling in the South West or the North East is more than 2.5 times higher than those studying in London.

In recent years, students have become less mobile – average drive time has decreased every cycle since 2014, with 2019 placed applicants making choices that were on average 5 per cent closer to home than five years’ previously. It may be that the financial burden of student debt coupled with increasing maintenance costs – 2016 saw the scrapping of grants in England – has had an impact on students’ willingness to look further afield. Where money is tight, proximity to a local, part-time job that you had during your A-levels has appeal.

The Bank of England has warned that the impact of Covid-19 will see the UK enter its deepest recession on record, with a likely 14 per cent contraction of the economy this year. Although recession typically has a larger impact on the behaviour of mature applicants, we saw a fall in average drive time for UK 18-year-olds of three minutes when the 2008 recession hit, with this downward trend continuing for the subsequent three cycles as the UK’s economy continued to suffer.

Looking at this cycle, are we seeing any significant shifts in student behaviour? In a word, no, or perhaps, not yet. 49 per cent of applicants have made at least one choice within 30 mins of home compared to 48 per cent at the same point last year. Similarly, 31 per cent of applicants who have already replied to their offers have chosen the choice closest to home, compared to 32 per cent last cycle. Our survey data tells a slightly more nuanced story with six per cent of applicants (up from 1 per cent in early April) now thinking about going to a university closer to home.

However, as is likely the case across all walks of life, the impact of Covid-19 will be felt in the months, and indeed years to come. While this year’s cohort had, for the most part, made their choices prior to the outbreak, the same cannot be said for next year’s, or indeed those that were due to sit their GCSEs this summer.

We know that student decision-making is an emotive and personal experience. Our survey data shows that a wide variety of factors, including social life, fitting in, accommodation, provider location, ease of travelling home and availability of part-time employment are all important to applicants in this process – and the impact of such an enormous event cannot be underestimated. Take the 2021 entry cohort, for example, how might they view the prospect of continuing their education far from home at a time when open days and visits have been replaced with virtual events and their bus journey to school feels like a distant memory?

If proximity begins to play a greater part in the applicant decision-making process, there will inevitably be winners and losers. Indeed, civic universities and colleges with a localised catchment area may conceivably benefit, while those that recruit further afield could become less attractive. Indeed, considering a scenario whereby all 2019 applicants had enrolled at their choice closest to home, we would have seen acceptances to some providers more than double (with these hypothetical ‘enrolments’ increasing by over 1,000 in some cases). There are naturally providers with corresponding decreases. Such a scenario is obviously unlikely, and impractical, but does serve to highlight the potential disparities if such changes in applicant behaviour are manifested.

Clearly, universities and colleges already have a direct and significant role in supporting local economies and communities. It is probably too soon to say whether the pandemic will make students less likely to travel to study, yet it is likely that universities will be upping their efforts to integrate with local schools and networks. Higher education providers have a huge amount to digest, but opportunities may be closer than we think.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Some interesting facts.

    When it comes to jobs at the end of their degrees a majority of graduates take up offers in the geographic area where they studied or grew up.

    Many also go to a local University and then get a job in the same area.

    Perhaps we are not that different.

    Is there any evidence that the more adventurous students who “go away” or “go abroad” to University get better results?

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