Harriet Swain finds out why more students are choosing to live at home.
Dodgy flatmates and mouldy fridges tend to play as large a role in graduates' memories of their university days as the finer points of a Shakespearean text or a chemical formula. But this could change. In recent years, the number of students staying in the family home has risen steadily, and the trend shows every sign of continuing.
Latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show a 40 per cent increase in the number of students living with their parents between 1997 and 1999, while a MORI survey has found that 21 per cent of respondents living with parents or family. It is far from the view of higher education as a rite of passage into adulthood and independence.
In Scotland, where undergraduates tend to be younger when they start university, it is more traditional for them to live at home. It is also a more common occurrence in many other European countries, although in England, students at new universities, which often have close links with the local community, are more likely to live at home.
Christine Smith, a counsellor at the University of North London, says some families assume that children will live at home until they marry, and going to university is viewed as little different from studying at school. This is particularly true for students from some ethnic groups.
Recent campaigns to increase the number of students from these groups, and others previously under-represented at university, might have affected the trend, especially as many ethnic minorities and poorer families tend to be more wary of debt.
Smith says students living at home often face family pressures: some are resented because they do not have as much time to devote to childcare or housework as they once did, or because they are at university rather than in work. Others face unrealistic expectations of how hard they should study and their eventual academic success. But, Smith says, the problems she comes across as a counsellor are due less to students living at home than to the economic considerations that determined their choice of where to live.
Students, lecturers and university counsellors drawing on anecdotal evidence, all overwhelmingly identify economic pressures as the reason for the rise in the number of undergraduates living with their parents. The MORI survey found that for 58 per cent of people living at home, money had played a key role in their decision - 31 per cent said they would not have had to stay at home had maintenance grants continued.
Tony Chapman is head of sociology at the University of Teesside and author of the book Ideal Homes? , which looks at people's attitudes to home. He suggests that students take a more pragmatic approach than their predecessors towards their time at university, seeing it principally as an opportunity for academic study and acquiring the skills they will need to get a good job. He says this seems to be particularly true of those living at home.
"But university is not just about writing essays and working independently," he says. "It is about thinking and living independently as well. It is a buffer zone where they get three years to develop all sorts of skills." Those who stay at home - particularly those who do not move away for any of their time at university - do not make the shift to "graduateness", he says. "They don't notice, but we do."
This stamp of "graduateness" is partly the confidence and skill to look after themselves. The MORI survey found that although less than 17 per cent of respondents could cook, iron or use a washing machine when they started at university, 57 to 79 per cent could now do all those things; and 77 per cent felt able to look after their room, flat or house, compared with just 7 per cent when they started.
Traditionally, "graduateness" has also come from the distinctive experience of spending three years in close contact with other students. Robin Humphrey, senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at Newcastle University, carried out a statistical survey at Newcastle two years ago, receiving replies from 713 in a random sample.
The 14 per cent of these who were living with their parents reported feeling significantly less involved with the university than the others and were less likely to be involved in the student union or sports hall.
Humphrey says halls of residence are becoming increasingly important socially because less small-group teaching makes it harder for students to meet through their department.
Asked how much they enjoyed their leisure time, only 52 per cent of students in his survey who were living at home said they enjoyed it very much, compared with 69 per cent of non-home students. Some 12 per cent of home-livers said they wished very strongly that they had more friends, compared with just 6 per cent of the others.
More worryingly, only 60 per cent of students who lived with their parents said they had someone to confide in at the university, compared with 78 per cent of those who did not live at home. The absence of a confidant is often linked to stress: students living at home reported significantly higher stress levels.
Finally, a significantly higher proportion of students living away from their parents reported that their relationship with their mother and father had changed since they had been at university, although where students lived appeared to have no impact on whether or not they remained with a boy or girlfriend. Nor was there any evidence of academic advantage or disadvantage in living at home.
Other surveys have shown that many young people find leaving the family home to go to university tough, practically and psychologically. Again, increasing money worries often add to the strain. Many students struggle to hold a part-time or even full-time job and keep to a budget as well as get on with housemates and feed themselves.
Davina McManus, head of the department of student counselling and advisory service at the University of Glasgow, says students who live at home for their entire university career miss the richness of university life and can mature more slowly or find separation more difficult than their peers.
But, she says, many students who come to counselling having moved away are clearly not ready for independence and become so terrified that they might quit university altogether. "It would be too self-punishing for them to continue, and another year at home could help them make the transition," she says.
Liz Kenyon, a lecturer in sociology at Portsmouth University, who has studied groups of students living together in shared accommodation and others living at home, suggests that the British university ideal of going away to study is outdated. "The idea that there is something wrong with living at home comes from the traditional notion that student life is life apart, a time for reflection," she says. "Is that realistic when more than 30 per cent of young people are going into higher education?" This idea is supported by Mike Finn, aged 21, in his third year of a history degree at Liverpool University. He has lived at home for all three years. "If you live with your parents, you don't have a lot of the distractions you would have living in halls," he says. He admits that living at home tends to mean doing less socially, but he says he really wanted to make a go of his degree.
Depending on how his study goes, he hopes to stay on for a masters and maybe a PhD. None of his present plans involves leaving the family nest.
It's cheap, but it's not easy
I had never intended to live at home. It was only by a quirk of fate that I did so. The advantages are financial, with parents not expecting rent, but it is the presence of parents that deters many from considering home as an option.
Students can learn responsibility and independence from both living at home and living away. Whether your worries are isolation or the next heating bill, there are always problems.
My previous experience of living away made being at home easier. My family realised that I had changed, and I no longer perceived being at home as a continuation of my school days.
As a home student, the onus is on you to establish a social life. It is not impossible to have a "conventional" student life, but it requires a little extra effort.
Sarah Ogden Liverpool University
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