What’s it like to learn in a cold spot?

As ministers instruct OfS to address "cold spot" higher education, Jane Batkin explores why students might want to study "in the middle of nowhere"

Jane Batkin is Acting Deputy Head of School at the Lincoln School of Film and Media

In 2019, Baroness Morgan asked an audience “how can we be the greatest place in the world to grow up?” and announced that we needed to give the next generation the best possible chance to succeed, “no matter where they come from.

However, statistically, where they come from matters. The North East and the East Midlands had the second highest poverty rates after Inner London, at 17 percent, in the Child of the North Report published in 2020, but inequalities exist both in the North and South divide and between the urban and the rural.

Unhelpfully, in 2020, the UK Minister of State for Universities announced that it didn’t matter which groups went to university, deflating this important issue. Social moblity coldspots in the UK are located in coastal and rural areas, with youngsters struggling against barriers to life and learning as they grow up.

Yet a student posted on a national forum recently to ask if anyone had a list of rural universities in the UK, stating:

“I’m talking middle of nowhere at best, but I could survive a small town.”

In the “new normal” landscape where we share our lives with the pandemic, rurality has become our significant “other” – but for many students, rural HE has always been their first choice.

So what it is that draws students to study in the middle of nowhere, what do they want and how do we ensure, in this uneven and uncertain landscape, that they get it?

The road to somewhere

The presence of universities in the UK have always been geographically uneven. According to the Office for Students, 54 percent of young people enter higher education in London, 41percent in the south east and 42 percent in the industrial West Midlands. This drops to 37 percent in the rural South West and rural East Midlands.

Children living in rural areas tend to go to their nearest school and many are simply not motivated by the idea of attending HE in another part of the country. Graham Biggs, chief executive of Rural Services Network argues that the government needs to focus on the divide between the rural and the urban as well as the more acknowledged one of north/south – levelling up is needed for areas that have been left behind, with investment made in opportunities for students who choose rural.

The Department for Education recognises that choice becomes limited for students in low income households because of the need to stay close to home for financial reasons.

A study conducted by DfE in 2017 looked at two rural areas of England, one in the South West and the other in rural Essex, and surveyed parents and children about the pros and cons of living there.

Safety and quietness was perceived as a pro but poor connectivity and quietness (again) was a con, although in rural Essex there was easier connectivity to Brentwood and on, to London. A stakeholder in the South West, however, claimed there was “no mobility, never mind social mobility”. However, it seems that if young people do choose to go to university from rural areas, many of them want to stay fairly local: “I want to go away, but I don’t want to go too far”.

Clean country air

The fact is, many students consider rurality to be an important factor when making decisions about university choices and, in the case cited above, breathing clean country air was more important to the student than “prestige”.

In the reply thread of the blog, helpful responses listed campuses they considered to be “rural”, such as Exeter, Staffordshire, Keele and Cumbria, but at the same time made rather unfounded assumptions that “a lot of these will have limited subject choices”.

One student commented, helpfully, that one of the campuses “smelt of manure every morning”, and another suggested the Open University “and a tent” might be a solution.

Not all students choosing rural are from rural households – Natalie Clazon has written about her experience for whatuni.com and chose Bangor after living in London. She was attracted by the University’s Ocean Studies programme and chose the coastal location as it aligned with her course and advises others to consider the benefits of the surrounding area and activities on offer.

She suggested that rural universities have a real “campus feeling” that cities like London don’t, as well as being more affordable. Similarly, a student opting for Exeter’s Penryn campus described the “community feel” that a small, rural campus offers and the personal touch that large universities struggle to offer in the same way.

School-leavers who decide to study in their local area tend to stay there after graduating and seek work locally, afterwards, whilst those who move away to university are more likely to travel for work. OfS is investing £5.6 million to help those students who choose to stay in their local region, through programmes such as virtual career fairs in Bradford, internships in the Tees Valley and networks between enterprises and students in Norfolk and in Lincoln.

Lincoln works closely with its local community and businesses and offers Degree apprenticeships to students working close by, as well as its own incubation centre for business start ups, giving its students plenty of opportunities.

Rurality is increasingly sought after these days, as the world continues to adapt to the idea of living flexibly with, rather than beyond, the pandemic – just as students continue to be drawn to the coast and the wide open spaces for their higher education choices. Such choices may be steered by the location of the family home, but seem equally driven by subjects that lend themselves to the great outdoors and by a valued sense of community that the big cities don’t offer in the same way – the “middle of nowhere” has a distinct appeal for those who just don’t want urban.

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