I spent the last six months travelling alongside commuter students. Here’s what I learned

Commuter students have all kinds of different experiences. Emma Maslin's research seeks to better understand their journeys

Emma Maslin is a PhD researcher at Durham University

There’s a lack of discussion around commuter students in our current post-COVID climate and ongoing cost of living crisis.

This is despite recent research from the Sutton Trust suggesting that more undergraduate students than previous years could be living at home and commuting to university.

My PhD research sought to understand more about the commuter student experience specifically in a Yorkshire and North East context – the North East in particular having a high number of commuter students but limited research in the region.

Instead of just interviewing commuters, I wanted first-hand experience of commuting life and in particular their travel experiences.

Life on the road

Six months of travelling on buses and trains, visiting campuses, frequenting coffee shops all in the context of inclement weather, rail and university staff strikes gave me a sense of commuter student life that wouldn’t have been possible from a traditional interview.

I was at the whim of train and university timetables, having to plan my commutes with students around times I could physically reach them from my own home location. This was echoed in the students’ experiences – one commuter in particular was unable to join a society because they couldn’t reach university early enough for the Saturday morning session.

In multiple cases I had to stay overnight in a hotel because it was simply the only way I could accompany participants on their early morning commute, a commute for one participant that started at 6.30am. I was fortunate that I could apply for funding for fieldwork costs through my PhD funding body – my participants were not so lucky.

While I became a travel guru on finding the best travel discounts, my own participants were contending with unexpected cost increases in public transport during the course of their degree. This was exacerbated by rail and university staffing strikes which meant students were unsure if they’d be able to get to university, or if they did, whether their academic classes would even be running.

However, the strikes were rarely viewed negatively by participants; students often welcomed the extra time at home and reduction in travel expenses they afforded.

Commuting became my life for six months, but for my participants this was just a snapshot of their rich and diverse experiences. To save anyone else experiencing rickety trains and damp bus seats as much as I did, here are my key takeaways for the sector.

Local doesn’t always mean commuter

Lacking an agreed sector definition of this student group has resulted in multiple terminologies used by institutions and the wider sector: live at home students, commuter students, local students, staycation students – to name but a few.

Assuming commuter students are local to their institution of study, however, is problematic. I commuted with multiple students whose commutes equated to a four hour round trip, hardly a “local” journey. By only referring to students who commute as local, this ignores those students travelling considerable distances to attend their university, and threatens to minimise the impact these long journeys have on their university experience.

Few universities appear to have a definition for commuter students, let alone be actively collecting data on the size and make up of their commuter student population including their home locations. Universities may want to ask their commuter students to help construct a student-led definition that fits their particular institutional and regional context – but really these conversations need to be happening as a united sector.

Things change

Commuter students’ lives can change over the course of their degree, including their commuting status. A student in my study was living at home with their parents when we commuted together, but had lived in university student accommodation the previous two years and was planning on living in private student accommodation in the city the following academic year. Another student was on a waiting list for university student accommodation for the next academic year.

Institutions may want to consider how they measure commuter students at their institutions to accommodate these changes. When asking students the HESA accommodation questions on enrolment, do your students know what each of the categories actually refers to? Ensuring that the question isn’t automatically repopulated for subsequent enrolments will also improve data quality and provide better insurance for more accurate term-time address information.

All commuters are different

Commuter students are often discussed in relation to other characteristics. They are more likely to be mature, to be from a minority ethnic background, to be carers and/or from low-income households. While they may be demographically similar, this doesn’t necessarily result in similar experiences of commuting.

In my research multiple students were mature, but even within the same institution often had differing experiences. All second years, two mature commuters regularly worked in their university library and socialised with course friends in university cafes and common spaces – yet another mature commuter spoke of feeling uncomfortable in these same spaces. They had never visited a university library and instead we stood in the rain with our coffees rather than sitting in a campus cafe.

This diversity of experience was also evident in the transport use of students in the study. Train users had to contend with differing levels of cost, train frequency and journey times, with car users facing different fuel costs and traffic depending on their route to campus. This was in addition to any differences as a result of student’s individual academic timetables, when they needed to be on campus and the knock- on impact this had on their commute.

Beware the “commuter student experience”

Finding out more about commuter students and their experiences is necessary, especially if universities are going to find themselves with an increasing commuter student population to support, whether through student choice, lack of university accommodation or otherwise.

If we’re not careful, trying to present a homogenised understanding of the “commuter student experience” may instead find itself lacking in understanding the complexities surrounding this student group. While there may be some commonalities in their experiences, the differences can prove just as enlightening for understanding commuter students’ experiences.

4 responses to “I spent the last six months travelling alongside commuter students. Here’s what I learned

  1. Hi Emma, great article, and best wishes with your research. I have fond memories of my time as a commuter student myself. In your introduction you suggest that commuter students are living ‘at home’. I wondered if you have also considered that with the shortage of accommodation, particularly in busy and expensive cities (which you may well find includes Durham), students may well be renting accommodation further and further from the University. This will lead to a group of students who are both living away from home and have a reasonable commute as well. As prices are rising and availability of rental properties is falling the cheapest places to live may well be places with the worst public transport links and road networks or simply further away from Universities.

    1. Hi Rachel, thanks for your comment. I think you’re absolutely right in that we may well see a shift in the types of places commuter students are living as a result of accommodation shortages, facing additional difficulties with travel as a result. For me, this all comes back to universities needing a definition so they can not only know how many commuter students they have, but also the types of places they’re living and travelling from to ultimately create the best kind of support possible.

  2. Great to read about your research Emma, and I agree that the definition is challenging, and the experiences and responses to them are varied, so there is not a single commuter experience. Using the ‘commuter student lens’ does identify some of the assumptions that underpin the provision of higher education in many contexts. The research commissioned by London Higher about commuter students was very much focused on students who travel – many of whom living in student accommodation, or at least away from home and not with their immediate family. In other work I have also observed that some students are forced to rent or stay with relatives in accommodation that is quite a away from their institution. This again has time and cost implications associated with commuting, and can result in students making decisions about to participate in and being forced to miss out on some opportunities, including making use of on campus learning resources, and academic, wellbeing and professional development services.

    1. Hi Liz, Thanks so much for your comment. I think your mention of the travel aspect of being a commuter student is extremely important, as increasingly there will be students who will be travelling significant time/distances for university but perhaps not be in the types of accommodation that previously would be expected of commuter students (e.g. student accommodation with other students due to shortage of university accommodation).

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