Home-based students suffer socially but not academically, writes Alison Utley.
Stay-at-home students make fewer friends than those who go away to study and miss out on important elements of undergraduate life. But they do not suffer academically, according to an in-depth study of more than 3,000 undergraduates.
Universities must tackle the marked differences in social experience between students who opt for their local universities and living at home and those who move away, according to researcher Clare Holdsworth.
Her findings, to be published next year, confirm that staying at home is a growing trend. Dr Holdsworth, a senior lecturer at Liverpool University, found that home-based students were substantially less involved with campus life and found making friends more difficult than those living on campus.
They were also made to feel they were not "proper students" because they did not conform to the stereotype of a young adult experimenting with independent living.
The study revealed that 62 per cent of home-based students said they found fellow students supportive, compared with almost three-quarters of students who had moved away. And more than 80 per cent of away students said they enjoyed a good social life, whereas just 65 per cent of students at home said they did.
In addition, 85 per cent of away students found making friends easy, compared with 76 per cent of those at home.
Home-based students were more involved in non-campus activities, but keeping up outside interests is not always easy, as Sarah, aged 21, found.
"I would really have liked to carry on going to church but I can't do that now."
The 3,282 students in the study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, were drawn from four institutions in Greater Merseyside. Just over 22 per cent were living at home. The proportion nationally is likely to be more than 30 per cent this year, double the amount in 2000.
"The findings suggest a greater degree of detachment from university life for home-based students," said Dr Holdsworth, who is launching her research at the British Educational Research Association conference this week. "But going away to university does not in itself mean that students will have lots of friends and a good social life - this is something all students, regardless of their background, have to work at."
Marissa, a 21-year-old student living at home, said: "I was a bit lonely at first because everyone knew everyone and they lived together in halls. I just came in for lectures then I went home."
Alex, a 22-year-old student living at home, said she did not socialise much outside classes. "I spend more time with friends I've had through school," she said.
Richard, another home student, made an effort to become involved in the university scene. "What I've tried to do is dig myself into the structure of the uni, to know as many people as possible."
Dr Holdsworth stressed that local students were often at a disadvantage because their low profile on campus lent force to beliefs that they were unavailable for student activities, which resulted in fewer invitations to activities. "This reinforces any practical problems that local students might perceive in engaging in student life," she said.
Institutions made generalised assumptions about students that failed to take account of the significant numbers who were living at home. "It might surface in timetabling or in assumptions about what people are doing or where they are living because there just is not the awareness that other models of student life are valid," Dr Holdsworth said.
"Unfortunately, there is a negative association towards local students that leads them to feel they are not proper students because they defy one of the most keenly held stereotypes of student life - that going to university is all about leaving home and living away from parents for the first time."
But if students living at home are not academically disadvantaged, does any of this matter?
"As more students choose to stay at home, the idea that not leaving home represents an inferior model of going to university is becoming less appropriate," Dr Holdsworth said.
Living at home added a further restriction to students' experiences, she said. Yet for students who intend to remain in their home area, maintaining local friendship groups and taking part in non-university activities might result in more valuable social networks once they complete their studies.
"The fact that local students are more likely to have less attachment to university life might not necessarily be a disadvantage. But it is important that providers of higher education recognise diversity in the student population, and the legitimacy of local students' aspirations and experiences," Dr Holdsworth said.
Independent, not distant
The fact that Sheffield University had a highly rated music degree was only a minor influence on Arnie Singh's decision to remain in his home town.
Mr Singh, now a postgraduate, barely considered moving away. As a keen footballer and golfer, Mr Singh was a member of several local sporting and musical groups.
"I played in a band and had been going to the same recorder teacher in Rotherham for years," said Mr Singh, 23, who also plays piano and guitar.
"I am the sort of person who enjoys walking in to a bar in town and seeing familiar faces. But I am confident enough to fit in to the social life of university - I had the best of both worlds."
He was able to use his local contacts to keep afloat financially while studying when his former school offered him a job as a peripatetic music teacher.
Mr Singh's family was also keen for him to stay close to home, even offering to buy him a flat in Sheffield's student district.
"For me, it would have been a wrench to go anywhere else," he said. "I was able to live independently from my family, even though they were still near, which my mum really liked."
Mr Singh does not feel he missed out on any aspect of student life. "I can imagine for some students there would be a problem in the first few weeks as groups of friends form around the halls of residence, but I am the sort of person who doesn't wait for people to come to me."
Student Lindsey Rawes grew up in Ferrybridge and chose to study classics at nearby Leeds University because she was unsure about how she would cope away from home.
"I just thought it would be more convenient and less expensive if I continued to live with my parents," she said.
"It was a bit harder to get to know people at first, and I felt a bit weird and different from other students, but after a while I made friends with people on my course. It did take a bit longer to get established.
"Looking back, I have no regrets - it was the right decision for me."