Forgotten, isolated and ignored: the rise of the commuter student

Are UK universities doing enough to help commuter students integrate into higher education and student life?

March 6 2018
commuter students

Universities are failing to meet the needs of commuter students across the UK even though the number of students choosing to live at home is increasing.

A study conducted by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust in February 2018 highlighted that about 55.8 per cent of students under the age of 20 attend a university less than 57 miles from home, while only one in 10 students attends a university more than 150 miles away.

The report further highlighted that in 2014-15 (the first year of £9,000 fees), “over three quarters of the student body at the University of the West of Scotland (77.5 per cent) and Newman University (76.2 per cent) in Birmingham come from less than 91 km away and also live in their parental home”.

More than 50 per cent of undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University of WolverhamptonGlasgow Caledonian University and City, University of London also commute to university, claimed the study.

In contrast to the aforementioned universities, however, “only 2 per cent of the student body at the Universities of Bath, Bristol, York and Exeter” live in their parental homes, while there are no reports of students “of this sort” who attended either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge, the Sutton Trust report reveals. 

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There are many reasons explaining why more students are commuting to university, from student finance not covering the full cost of their living to students not receiving additional financial support from families.

While many universities claim that they have activities and events in place to help students to integrate, commuter students still feel ignored by their university and feel that their university does not do enough to integrate them into the student body. In fact, when I approached the Times Higher Education top 25 UK universities for a response on how they are accommodating the needs of commuter students, not one of the students’ unions provided a statement to explain how they were dealing with this issue.

Living costs in particular are a major contributing factor in the rise of students staying at home while at university. For example, the University of Bristol’s website suggests that ”most students [in this area] spend in the region of £9,000 to £14,500 a year on living expenses, including accommodation”.

However, University of Bristol economics student Tom says: “Student maintenance just wasn’t enough to feasibly live in the increasing cost of halls – I don’t have over £9,000 a year to spend on accommodation. I’m not from a very wealthy family so I wouldn’t dream of asking my parents for money. At the moment, I work around four late shifts a week to support my cost of living and I'm living with a family friend.”

Despite universities often having information on their websites about how they assist commuter students with integration, many students still feel as though they are missing out on a typical student experience.

Postgraduate student Natalie, who attends Keele University, said: “I was planning on driving to Keele, which would take me around an hour. I did that for a while and when I was doing it parking was a real problem on campus and there’s nowhere else close to campus to park.

“I then had a panic attack in the car one day and developed really bad anxiety around driving. So, a few weeks into my studies, I had to make a decision about whether to drop the course or do the ridiculously convoluted journey to Keele on public transport and I decided to stick with it. So, my commute is now a train (or two, depending on the time of day) and a bus and can take up to three hours. There has been no outreach that I am aware of to help commuter students or to help integrate them. I haven’t done much myself in order to seek help because I’m not there that often and try to work more from home.

“I think even a simple email out to the commuter students to check how they were getting on would [make you] feel like you’re more part of the community and that you feel you can get help if you need it. To be honest, I wouldn’t know where to go for help.”

One student, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I am in my first year at university, but I am only in lectures for about eight hours a week. I find it hard to make functional friendships because of this [lack of contact hours]. I have considered dropping out in the past because I felt like I was wasting my time at university and that nobody else was in the same situation as me.”

Alice from the University of Cardiff said: “I spent the first three years of my four-year degree living in student accommodation. I feel as though my experience so far this year [now that I commute] has been very different. I feel like I am on the outer peripheries of the student community due to the distance it would take me to travel home after social events and nights out.”

With commuter students on the rise across the UK, and costs of living increasing, universities need to be doing more to integrate these students with the rest of the student body to ensure positive student satisfaction. 

Read more: ‘I feel conned’: UK students on soaring rates of student debt

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