This blog was contributed by Professor Ross Renton, the inaugural Principal of ARU Peterborough – a new university for the city. ARU Peterborough is being led by Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority, Peterborough City Council, and Anglia Ruskin University, and will open in September 2022. The post-pandemic mass return to campuses and an increase in students from more disadvantaged parts of the UK entering higher education will serve to increase attention on ‘transport poverty’, says Professor Renton, who argues for a new ‘Travel to Learn’ Commission.
We are nearing the end of one of the most challenging periods for education in the UK. Across the country colleges, universities and other providers supported the great autumn return.
Despite the many challenges, we need to recognise that there has been a herculean effort during the pandemic to implement large scale online learning – often highlighting the high levels of digital poverty within many of our communities. It is likely that the benefits of this acceleration in the use of technology to support learning and teaching will remain with us far beyond the pandemic.
However, many students across the country are craving face to face teaching after experiencing months of pandemic-imposed lack of in-person contact. The 2021 Student Academic Experience Survey by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has clearly demonstrated that a high value is placed on in-person interactions with staff and students.
Hands-on tuition of course remains vital for many subjects, particularly in the fields of science, health and the arts, and next academic year has the potential for a record numbers of students and apprentices to return to their bus or train journeys. Therefore, there needs to be greater government attention on tackling the deficiencies in public transport that exclude many students from getting to and from our campuses in the first place.
This is particularly important as we’ve seen a growth (of 7.3%) in the number of university students from the most disadvantaged areas of the UK – a quarter of all 18-year-olds from these areas and social backgrounds are now entering higher education. Many of these young people are from the communities the government is targeting with the ‘Levelling-up’ agenda.
This travel to learn challenge is more than just the prohibitive cost of travelling to a place of learning or the lack of income to cover the cost, the fare is only one element. It also concerns accessibility, for example sporadic timetables or no public transport options whatsoever. As you might expect, rural communities are impacted more than most, with low population densities in many villages resulting in unviability of regular bus routes.
Now is the time to implement bold initiatives to integrate transport and education strategies: levelling up travel to learning will accelerate the nation’s intentions to widen education participation and transform currently isolated rural communities.
There is no denying these are complex challenges. They will require a range of national and local responses to address the problem. Local authorities could co-develop travel to learn strategies with colleges, universities and employers. Greater collaboration will result in an increased benefit-cost ratio for these subsidies and initiatives – with many colleges and universities already using learner funding to subsidise travel. In addition, colleges and universities could consider increased flexibility in their timetables to accommodate learners they attract from known areas of transport poverty.
We could be even bolder as a nation and reduce or eradicate transport fares for full-time students and apprentices. Increasing the number of students using public transport is likely to enhance viability and the availability for all elements of society within isolated communities. It will also have the added environmental sustainability impact of reducing the number of car journeys or the need for parking around campuses.
It will, however, take national leadership to develop the enabling polices to enhance travel to learn opportunities. The national funding conditions need to reward innovation in tackling a fundamental barrier to levelling up. Therefore, I propose The Secretary of State for Transport and Secretary of State for Education establish a joint Travel to Learn Commission to recommend national long-term polices to support life-long access to learning opportunities. The Commission will need to work swiftly to have the most benefit whilst consulting with a range of education establishments, employers, local authorities and transport providers.
Through these initiatives we can make significant progress in the journey towards eradicating one of the fundamental barriers to social mobility, the access to educational opportunities. This, combined with innovative models of education – for example new universities in poorly served towns and cities such as the new ARU Peterborough development in Peterborough, with Anglia Ruskin University as the university partner – will level-up educational opportunity for the long-term.