The sector is still often talking at cross purposes over commuter students

Many university staff will say that their institution has a lot of commuter students – but are they all talking about the same thing? Emma Maslin defines the problem

Emma Maslin is a PhD researcher at Durham University

The addition of commuter students to the Office for Students Equality of Opportunity Risk Register (EORR) reaffirms that they often have a poorer experience than their live-in peers – they are limited in their choice of institution, have an increased likelihood of cost pressures and a higher risk of experiencing insufficient academic and personal support.

These experiences have also been voiced by the commuters I’ve spent time with – although it is important that the differences in their experiences are also acknowledged. However, there’s another problem – which group of students are we referring to, exactly?

Comparing apples to oranges

In the absence of a sector definition individual institutions have had to make their own. Naturally, these are often very specifically tailored to institutional and regional contexts. UCL for example uses Transport for London transport zones as a distance marker combined with time travelled to campus, whereas the University of Bristol defines a commuter student as someone not living in student accommodation and/or in the city of Bristol (notably holding a different definition for local students).

A reasonable argument could be made here in that my comparison of the two definitions above are from two very different regions. What it means to commute in these two regions will look very different, a combination of university location and regional transport infrastructure. Having lived in Northeast England for ten years I too am the first to scoff when it comes to anyone in London complaining about transport delays of five minutes or over – it’s just not the same.

The problem persists however when comparing commuter student definitions within a similar regional context. UCL measures a commuter student as travelling from outside of zone 3, and/or having a travel time of 45 minutes or over. In comparison, research undertaken by staff at Brunel on their student body referred to commuter students as anyone with the same term-time and home address.

Different definitions in operation means different conversations in the sector. If Brunel and UCL staff were to get in a room for a discussion about commuter students, it is likely they would be referring to a Venn diagram of this student group where both definitions would overlap, but also likely miss students that could be broadly termed as commuting. For instance, Brunel could be talking about a student’s experience of university where they happen to live round the corner from the institution with their family, the kind of commuter student UCL’s definition wouldn’t include.

This isn’t just an issue across HEIs, but also within wider organisations across the sector. A good illustration of the general difficulty in defining commuter students lies on the Office for Students website. “Local and commuter students” have been a student group listed on the “promoting equal opportunities” OfS webpages for some time, with the definition provided for local and commuter students as “those who live in the same travel to work area as their university or college.”

However, the new EORR page linking this student group to the risks faced now only refers to commuter students with no mention of local students. A definition is also not specified for commuter students, instead acknowledging that there are multiple definitions operationalised within the studies consulted, another nod to the fact that any discussions of commuter students are unlikely to all refer exactly to the same students.

I’ve got a feeling

In lieu of an institutional definition (which applies to most universities in the sector) a lot of conversations are had amongst staff interested in this student group based on a feeling. “We know we’ve got a lot of commuter students” is something that has been said to me many times by staff.

Often, staff are also unaware their institution does not have a commuter student definition, particularly if they “know” this mode of study applies to a large proportion of students at their institution. I urge you to search “commuter students” or “live at home students” or whatever terminology you think your institution will use into the search bar of the university website. If you can’t find a definition, then you’re not on your own. If you can, is it what you thought it would be?

Both academic and professional services staff are likely to come into contact with commuter students at some point, and so anecdotally staff can quite easily build up a sense of the commuter student body such as the likely distances and time travelled or the courses particularly popular with commuters.

But really without a definition and some data how do we know for sure? This is not to say that these feelings are incorrect or misguided. Just that when basing our understanding of commuter students on “we know we’ve got a lot” simply isn’t enough if we actually want to know more about this cohort.

5 responses to “The sector is still often talking at cross purposes over commuter students

  1. An insightful article articulating a problem I imagine is often overlooked by prospective university students, parents, carers and the universities themselves. Hopefully this is the start of a discussion to consider how their experiences can be improved.

  2. An important contribution to a better understanding of a widespread situation that would benefit from clearer definition rather than the sloppy ambiguity that currently exists.

    This is not the only example of non existant or inappropriate definitions used in the HE sector that waste time, money and cloud understanding, which delays useful research and action relating to important issues.

    Can you believe that many Universities have no idea of how many students actually attend live course events such as lectures or seminars ( let alone the name of the students) as there is no obligation to closely monitor attendance as there is no common definition of “attendance”.

    We should not be surprised that at some Universities students are listed as “registered” on a course and the student name is linked to a student loan that the University is happy to bank a fee for, without anyone able to verify that the student has set foot on campus and in reality may not even exist.

    Is it any wonder that fraud is rife in the sector.

  3. What I think seems to define the challenge of the commuting students experience is not so much the distance to where they live but the complexity of the journey and the related dependencies. The commute might be defined by the stress of getting the kids to school, doing the part time job in the way home, getting the kids from mum and then getting home in erratic public transport .. or university green policies driving the student car off campus.

    Recognising and easing some if these pressures in timetable design, timing of reading weeks, assessment schedules, teaching and learning delivery mode, campus access plans, access to learning resources, timely feedback, student support funding, campus nursery provision could all make it a bit easier. No big bang solution but a host of pragmatic incremental changes based on a deeper understanding of the real lives of students.

    1. But this does require first some common definition of what a commuter student is, as the above would not apply to a wide range of students potentially classed as commuters (but would potentially be addressed by other definitions e.g. parents & carers).

      Surely the core issue is the question of what problems we are trying to address (and what assumptions we are making) when looking at potential ‘commuter’ students. As the only consistent potential issue I can see for most definitions (which are geographical) are transport related (though even then there is often a big difference – depending on the provider – between those reliant on public transport and those with their own transport).

      There are providers with a larger proportion of predominantly 18 year old local students who are (often) commuting from the region, and providers with larger proportions of mature students commuting from the region, and their experiences and challenges are not necessarily the same (though there is overlap around campus-based experience).

      This is a good article.

  4. Good article. While some of the definitional issues are clearly complex, the conflation/confusion of “live-at-home students” with “commuter students” seems to be a straightforward logical error. There will be students who choose to study at an institution around the corner from the parental home (live-at-home but not commuter) and students who live far from home but still face a long commute e.g. due to unaffordable housing in the vicinity of their institution (commuter but not live-at-home). In some cases there’s even a non-trivial commute between a university’s residences and educational campuses. Of course there will be a significant intersection between these groups, and significant challenges common to both groups. But doesn’t it make more sense to define these two very different concepts separately before considering their intersection and relationship?

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