Driving home for Christmas? Commuting as a symptom of student disadvantage

David Maguire and David Morris attempt in the latest HEPI publication to define, understand, and aid “commuter students”.

Issues with definitions mean that the solutions they propose will likely benefit all students – no bad thing. But we don’t seem any closer to understanding commuter students than our existing sense that some student experiences are different.

The approximate quarter of students who live in the home of a parent or carer is one of those statistics. Like the two-thirds of students who studied part time in 2009-10, it helps to encourage policymakers to think more broadly than the three-year undergraduate living in halls that dominates the popular imagination. You only have to look at the plummeting part-time figures in England since 2012 to see the perils of ignoring the diverse groups bearing the generic label of “non-traditional” students.

So, who are we talking about here? Maguire and Morris note the issues in seeing commuter students in HESA data, describing the way student accommodation data is changing to get a better understanding of the number and nature of these students and their experiences. But this is typical Morris – banging on about the absence of a population measure when there’s a perfectly good survey instrument at hand!

SIES who?

The Student Income and Expenditure Survey for 2014-15 (analysed on Wonkhe back in March) includes data on accommodation type (again we are close to our expected 25% on parental/carer domicile) and travel costs, lumping the latter in with participation costs. It shows us that, on average, part-time students who incurred participation costs (around half of those surveyed) spend £739 each year on travel to or from their place of study, with full-time students spending £825.

Notably, SIES also reports there is a correlation between socioeconomic group and travel costs. Those who do not have a family history of HE pay more in travel costs than those who do. Independent students pay more than those with family support, those with ethnic minority backgrounds also pay more – and table A5.9 suggests that those who own their own property, or live with parents/carers, are likely to pay more for travel to campus than those who rent.

There’s a major correlation between commuter status and more general disadvantage. It makes more sense – to me at least – to see commuting as a function of that disadvantage rather than as a separate if related issue.

Commuting is a symptom, not a cause

Maguire and Morris do say that: “These challenges affecting commuter students intersect with other characteristics that we already know impact students’ experiences and outcomes”. I’d argue that there is likely to be causality in there too. Students may live with family or carers out of a desire to save money, as well as out of a wider Goodhart-esque desire to root themselves to their place of birth.

If this hypothesis holds out we could expect to see a good correlation between institutions with high numbers of students who live at home and the number of students from low-participation backgrounds.

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If we exclude London institutions, we can see a medium correlation. London is a special case; it’s very expensive but has comparatively good public transport. So you’d expect to see more institutions with more students living at home and studying in London, and generally this is the case

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Addressing the problem

Morris and Maguire plot parent/guardian home dwelling against NSS overall satisfaction score. It doesn’t produce a large variation between institutions – hence the weak correlation – and there are a lot of other factors that could contribute to this relationship. For fun, I’ve plotted this.

I’m not buying their thesis that commuter students are a specific disadvantaged group. Although their recommendations and case studies are useful for any university looking to give a kinder and more flexible experience to all their students. In particular, timetables are a wicked problem and more could and should be done to help study and life fit together more easily

But the case for the policy intervention that would address these issues is not made. Simply, we need to bring back means-tested maintenance grants, and do something about the rapidly rising costs of living on or near campus.

5 responses to “Driving home for Christmas? Commuting as a symptom of student disadvantage

  1. Great response DK. You’ve drawn out well how it’s difficult to know for sure how commuting and other indicators of disadvantage intersect, and the extent to which these different factors are causal. This is particularly because the data available to us is not wholly reliable. That’s one reason why one of our most important recommendations is improving our collective definition of ‘commuters’ and how we collect data on student residence, something I know HESA is already looking at.

  2. Not to start finding turtles all the way down, but there’s also a question of what a ‘disadvantaged group’ is. While I’d agree that class, race and culture are major factors in why a student chooses to commute/live at home, and there will be interventions unrelated to residence status that are required to remove disadvantage as a result, commuting is nevertheless not the normative idea of ‘the student’. As a result, institutions can therefore overlook these students in policy and process thus compounding the disadvantage and you do need specific solutions for this group if that specific disadvantage is to be ameliorated. Travel cost is one example certainly, as is transport provision; another is access to storage/lockers on campus as carrying around books/equipment is often impractical (the Liz Thomas research for TSEP is excellent on all this).

  3. I would be most interested in a correlation between commuting and level of student engagement, not mediated by institutions’ student engagement scores. USA studies find a relation between student commuting and student level of engagement reported in its national survey of student engagement.

  4. Clicking on this link ‘For fun, I’ve this.’ generated this message:

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