What damage does residential higher education do?

If you care about working class communities – and I do – one of the things we have to accept is that what we do as a sector is destroy them.

We take communities like mine – Walsall in the West Midlands – and like child catchers, steal from them their most talented children into our residential model of higher education. And they never return.

I should know. I never did.

That’s how I opened my hastily developed “provocation” to delegates at Wonkfest this year attending our (“Quick, Chris Skidmore has pulled out”) sector manifesto development session. I was only half joking. As David Goodhart argued on Radio 4’s A Point of View recently, every autumn 1.5 million teenagers take part in a mass migration, dividing the country into a “graduate class of mobile future professionals” and a “non graduate class who stay closer to home” – one of the country’s “deepest divides” and “perhaps even one of the roots of brexit”.

Once split up, they never talk to each other. They have different outlooks, different food tastes, different filter bubbles and different outcomes in everything from salary to life expectancy. They have different values, different attitudes to immigration, and different takes on… Europe. Would I want to pull up the ladder and rob a bright kid in Walsall the chance to leave? Hell no. But does everyone like me leaving make it worse? Probably.

Harry Potter HE

One of the striking things about William Whyte’s terrific paper for HEPI on the residential nature of British higher education is how much support our model commands from those of us that have been through it. The report is a treasure trove of quotes and perspectives that explain in particular England’s obsession with leaving home to go to university, traced from the duopoly of Oxford and Cambridge right through to the building spree of the past fifteen years – during which the higher education sector as a whole spent £1 billion on student residences, with much more spent by the private sector.

The mid-nineteenth century, notes Whyte, witnessed major public school reform, with a new emphasis on moral education, school sports and clubs, and the creation of an “esprit de corps” which students in the new civics found missing. Oxford and Cambridge had begun to place an emphasis on “sporting activities, societies, and sociability”, and the civics – especially those with a local population too small to provide enough students – hoped to “attract outsiders with their accommodation”.

Only in purpose-built university accommodation, argued one commentator, could a student “live a new life, learning new ways, making new friends, acquiring habits of independence”. He added: “‘There can be no doubt that when a youth attains the age of 18 or 19 years it is best that he should escape from … home-surroundings”.

For those lucky enough to have escaped and “made it” – especially those of us that now work in and around the higher education sector – the consistent narrative is that the wider benefits and experiences associated with residential higher education were central both to our education and the outcomes that flowed from it. Never mind that most of Europe gets along fine without it – we are mostly convinced that it mattered. It “made” university and it “made” us.

But did it? If most of us think (and most of us do think) that segregating the bright off from everyone else into selective education at secondary level is a bad idea, are we sure that it’s wise to punch that segregation in permanently from 18? And are we really sure that we couldn’t have had our horizons broadened, and our minds expanded, and our intellectual and social capacity developed without moving away, never to return?

After dinner

It’s not what it used to be, after all. All luxury goods lose some of their lustre when they’re brought to the masses, and higher education is no different to those miniature boxes of After Eights in Poundland. For the now 50 per cent that “make it” to university, the close, intellectual community imagined in prospectuses is replaced by the biting reality of overcrowded lecture theatres and essays mass-marked by a stressed-out precariat. The wholesale transfer of their maintenance loan to landlords represents a wealth transfer that their dwindling social mobility will struggle to make up. And once they’re out, the truth is that:

“for many young people there is barely a fag paper between the urban twenty- and thirtysomething aspirational lifestyles rented via subscription services such as WeWork amid the coffee-shops and short-term rental markets of London, and those less fortunate left-behind ones scraping by in the fulfilment hellscape of an Amazon depot”

Remind me, again, who it is that’s “left behind”?

Nevertheless, there is still plenty of evidence that higher education – and in particular residential higher education – has benefits. Demand for it will sustain and grow over the next decade, with few politicians likely to attempt to take it away. And there are some great recommendations in the HEPI piece aimed at ensuring that it works for more people – stressing the need to offer accurate details about the true cost of living and the real conditions in which students will live, being more proactive in providing support for students living in private rental accommodation, and improving the design of accommodation to reduce the over-emphasis on cellular and improve communal and shared space.

There’s also wise words on addressing the increasingly unsustainable rise in rents, reviewing how accommodation policies affect local communities and finding ways to improve the experience of commuter students. Politicians and sector leaders should take note.

The fifty per cent target

But it takes until page 47 of 47 for the report to mention that “we have tended to ignore the 50 per cent of teenagers who do not attend university”. And that’s the other thing that’s striking about the HEPI piece – how silent it is on everyone and everywhere else. As Goodhart notes, many of us talk about the “virtues of stable communities” or about the “vice of Britain’s unequal economic geography” – yet every year we encourage poorer industrial towns like Rotherham or Mansfield “to send away 20 per cent to 30 per cent of their brightest 18 year olds … with many of them destined never to return”. Even if it is just going from Mansfield to Nottingham, one VC notes that “they are still likely to leave mentally… into an established new life, goals and friendship networks”.

When only 15 per cent of school leavers went away this didn’t matter so much – the 15 per cent always were cleaved off from the rest of us – and it was hardly the HE sector’s responsibility. But as well as thinking about the wonderful things we do for those that stay with us (and, in civic terms, those that live near us), these days we probably need to think seriously about the fifty per cent that don’t stay with us and don’t live near us. If we are major economic anchors, don’t we need to worry about the areas that don’t have a university? If we are transforming towns and cities, don’t we need to worry about the communities we’ve displaced by pushing up rent? And if we’re all about to expand to soak up demographic demand, don’t we need to do that somewhere other than where we are now?

Goodhart closes his Point of View by arguing that a new 50 per cent target be introduced – that at least half of all students in every university should live less than 15 miles away. It’s an interesting thought, and even if unpalatable at the very least OfS ought to be judging five year plans on access and finances on whether residential students to be recruited inside a provider growth strategy will have anywhere to actually live, instead of obsessing about the socio-economic distribution of segregation.

But even a 50 per cent commuter target falls into the segregation trap. It ought not to be beyond us to develop immersive, rich, transformative and horizon broadening experiences that don’t involve mass population displacement. We should look seriously at residential stays in a block teaching model as an alternative to the either-or of commuter v halls. And our impact reports should think openly about the harms and negatives we generate as well as the benefits we bring. A truly “civic” higher education sector would work out how to deliver it for more people without it being so perniciously damaging for everyone else.

5 responses to “What damage does residential higher education do?

  1. All good points Jim, but for me the biggest issue with the residential model is that it acts as yet another access barrier to the poorest and some other underrepresented groups – Muslim women for example – that are financially or culturally unable to take up what has become the ‘traditional’ mode of HE attendance. Just by opting for their local, within-reach post-1992 or FE college they are already facing disadvantages if they have the Ucas points to get in elsewhere. We already see a tendency for some BAME students referring to study were there are more ‘people like me’ rather than attending institutions based on a boarding school model. And as a former mature student I can also tell you that vanishingly small amounts of that group are likely to be found in any residential accommodation.

  2. As one of those that left and never returned (I did for a short time and then did post-grad study whilst living at home). Without access to a car nor good, cheap public transport I could not reach the closest universities and polytechnics, and there are still none with 15 miles of my home town decades later. So residential study was the only way. Also if I had studied closer to home my subject choices would have been limited – I could not have studied my first choice although I did not get a place so did a different one (again not on offer ‘locally’).
    My the time I was job hunting there were few but not many opportunities within reach of my home town (although again I did not have a car to reach them). Moving to a large city with more employers and public transport were my only option.
    Without grants it is much harder for working class people to go to university as it limits mobility.

  3. Fewer than 1 in 5 students live in residential accommodation maintained by a HE provider – the same proportion live in the home of a parent or guardian, according to HESA. Sutton Trust report 55% of students commute to university distances of less than 55 miles. Charlie Ball reported on wonkhe only a month ago that:

    69% of students work in the region they resided in pre-university and 45% stayed in that region throughout.


    Jim Dickinson’s blog appears misinformed.

  4. You’re confusing regions and towns, Bradbury. Mansfield and Nottingham are very different places – as are (for example) Cromer and Norwich

  5. My daughter did an Erasmus course in France a Year back at a residential University. Her experience was different as an international student. At her University in the UK, international students mixed with other campus based students. In France the students had already had their friendship sets from the city/schools they lived in. At the end of the day they disappeared home and weren’t around at weekends. It meant that all the new friends she made were other international students and her engagements with French students were limited, which she found disappointing.. Not saying we shouldn’t redress the balance – but with such a big coterie of international students and the money they bring their interests also needs to be factored in

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