Reassess value of student ‘mass migration’ within UK, says report

Hepi study calls for debate on the purpose and value of the UK’s costly system of residential universities

November 14, 2019
Source: Getty

The UK’s “unusual and relatively new” system of residential universities should be re-examined to see whether it still serves a useful purpose, a study recommends.

In Britain, some 1.5 million students leave home each autumn to study, with 48 per cent of these students living in purpose-built halls and 52 per cent in private rented accommodation.

But an analysis for the Higher Education Policy Institute by William Whyte, professor of social and architectural history at the University of Oxford, has questioned whether this “mass migration” – accounting for about 80 per cent of all full-time UK students in 2017-18 – creates the educational benefits for students initially imagined during the post-war expansion of UK higher education.

“Universities need to begin a debate about the purpose and function of residence,” Professor Whyte argues in his report, Somewhere to Live: Why British Students Study Away from Home – and Why It Matters, published on 14 November.

Students’ “motivation [for leaving home] is far removed from the ideology that first legitimated this great migration”, says Professor Whyte, the author of Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain’s Civic Universities.

“For more than a century, it was assumed that residence was necessary to create a university community, to foster student education, and to enculturate undergraduates – especially those who had not experienced boarding school,” he says.

He explains that residential universities were founded on the belief that “students need to be taken out of their homes and sequestered away from the community” because the university was a “place set apart from the world, filled with a self-conscious elite”.

As this view of universities is now obsolete, the continued rationale for living away from home is far less clear, Professor Whyte adds.

“Beyond a general sense that moving to university will grant the ‘freedom to be oneself’ and a more or less accurate belief that life is more fun away from mum and dad, it is difficult to say what migrating from home is intended to achieve – especially given the relatively short distances most students actually travel,” he says, highlighting that 55 per cent of students who live away from home could easily commute to university from their family home.

That discussion is increasingly relevant given the rising rental costs faced by students, who can now expect to pay an average of nearly £6,400 a year for their rooms – a figure that rises to nearly £8,900 in London, the report says. Meanwhile, growing concerns over student mental health also raise questions about the UK’s residential university model, the report argues.

An “over-emphasis on cellular accommodation and an under-appreciation of the need for communal and shared space” meant that the traditional benefits of peer-to-peer support in student housing might not be enjoyed by all students, the report says.

Professor Whyte, whose report was sponsored by the student housing provider UPP, also calls for debate on “how both the planning and design of accommodation can overcome any sense of separation between the institution and the world around it” to deepen student engagement with their local communities.

“Our current system of mass residential university life is rather unusual and relatively new,” concludes Professor Whyte, who says the opening-up of an “elite – and elitist – model” of residential higher education to 50 per cent of young people has “undoubtedly [had] benefits, but its implications have not been sufficiently explored”.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles