We do need to know where students are at

The old binaries of "away from home" and "commuter" may mean we miss those that are both. Jim Dickinson gets on Teletext

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One potential misreading of there being more “commuter students” in higher education is the idea that they’re all studying significantly more locally than they would have before.

The categorisations of “residential”/away from homers and “commuter”/at homers as a binary is deep in UK higher education culture, and reflected in the available home domiciled student finance categories – but it’s becoming clear that more things are going on than just some “choosing local”.

There isn’t fantastic data on this. There’s housing type, which we looked at here, SLC data on who takes out an “at home” or an “away from home” loan, and UCAS often says that there are signals of a more local focus.

What we can see via HESA is which region a student is from, and which region a student is studying in. That tells us that for full-time students from the UK studying in the UK, in 2017-18 there were 52.51% studying in the same region as their domicile – down to 50.85% in 2021-22. Hardly earth shattering.

But what that doesn’t tell us is where in their region they’re living.

During the pandemic – when daft national decision makers thought once students were “there” they would only move “back” at the end of term – it was clear that a lot of students return home at weekends – to care for or spend time with family, undertake work, and so on. They were often in the region – but effectively leading double lives.

One of the questions therefore, as the cost of living crisis bites, is whether those that might have rented to be close to campus in the past within the same region are now switching to significantly longer commutes and living at home instead.

Only the lonely

If that’s happening, it matters. Ever since we carried out polling on student loneliness back in 2019, I’ve been struck by a tendency in the sector to apply a set of assumptions to the “type” that could end up leading to bad policy making.

When, for example, we were presenting the results at various fora, there was never a shortage of those who would proclaim that the findings and focus “must” be about young students living away from home – because commuter students already have local social networks.

What we knew already when diving both into the qualitative comments and quantitative characteristics scores was that isolation and community were a concern for pretty much all sorts of student – albeit that sometimes the desire was for “course mates” rather than lifelong friends.

For traditional commuters, university as place of identity (re)formation and escape is clearly really important for them too – albeit that it’s temporary and flickery rather than something that is fully immersible in.

Then if we turn to those who used to live away from home within the region, the supply/demand mismatch over housing in plenty of towns and cities and the cost of living crisis in general may well also be causing more and more away from homers to live further out – often with poor public transport links.

They are likely to have longer than acceptable commutes when viewed through the optic of a timetable that assumes they’re “around” all the time, and be demanding timetable compression – albeit that that’s not really what they “want”.

Then add in international students – and assume that many of them too are having to live further away from campus than we previously deemed acceptable or sensible – and we have complexity that needs mapping.

Who’s here? Who’s there?

Unless you’re a deliberate distance learner, the point both about what we used to think of as commuters and what we used to think of away from homers is there was a cluster around place and campus. You were “there”.

Technology and timetable compression makes it possible for place clustering to matter less for a minimum “survival” style viable experience – and housing and transport infrastructure scarcity and cost then acts as a pull away from that place.

So not only do we end up with miserable traditional commuters (given the intersection with low income backgrounds), there’s now miserable “new” regional commuters who would previously have lived “there”, and miserable international students who’ve moved halfway around the world to be somewhere only to not be “there”.

Potentially, there’s now tens of thousands of students who are bang smack in the middle of the “away from home” and “long commute” Venn who are really really miserable – with neither the ability to get home to the security and belonging they had there, or the security and belonging they have here.

It’s the equivalent of one of those “allocate on arrival” hotels you used to get on Teletext late holiday deals where you fly out and end up 5 miles from the beach, no transport to that beach, no pool, next to a building site, and a supermacado that shuts at six – and in your hotel there’s one bar with a broken pool table playing old episodes of Only Fools And Horses on a loop.

Except that was for a week, it was a bargain and it wasn’t for three years of your life that you had high hopes for.

As such, we really do need to know – in much more detail – where students are. It may well be that universities and their SUs should have a run at data mining on this with some postcode analysis of both how far someone is living and how far someone is away from their home – targeting interventions at those in the Holiday Hotel from Hell venn I suggest above.

But whatever else, the old definitions and the assumptions associated with “commuter” and “away from homer” almost certainly need to be binned.

One response to “We do need to know where students are at

  1. The HESA data are much richer than implied here as we have study location, home and term-time postcodes along with the type of accommodation so anyone inclined to analyse the data could get some really rich insights. Worth noting that the OfS have had a go at defining “local” students using the ever so useful travel to work areas that are based on how far people will typically travel to work, what one might think of as a consensus on a reasonable daily commute, all available in the oft overlooked student characteristics dashboards available here https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/student-characteristics-data/population-data-dashboard/

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