Dan West, Head of the Equality and Social Mobility Unit at the University of Derby, considers why more students are choosing to commute to university, the impact of this, and why higher education providers should take note.
I was a commuter student years ago before the term had been invented. I couldn’t justify the cost of term-time accommodation at the time, so I travelled a long distance by bus to get to university. It was tiring and often stressful, especially if there were delays, but I still thoroughly enjoyed my university days. Fast forward many years and more students are now ‘choosing’ to live at home these days. At the University of Derby, we appreciate the challenges our commuter students face, and we’re keen to support them with changes.
The Pros and Cons of being a commuter student
There are, of course, pros and cons to being a commuter student. Yes, you don’t need to pay anything upfront for deposits and, of course, you save thousands on rent and utilities. But does this decision cost students in non-monetary terms? I personally think it cost me. I felt I missed out on a big part of the higher education experience – a lot of which you could class as the ’fun stuff’. This included the full freshers’ week experience, the opportunity to join new clubs and societies, regular nights out, and perhaps most importantly, the chance to make lots of new friends – friendship groups seemed to develop so quickly in halls.
What do the statistics say?
“There are very practical barriers to engaging beyond the academic sphere caused by the travelling itself, and reinforced by the structure and culture of many higher education institutions, which assume a traditional model of student engagement and residency.” Student Engagement Partnership, 2017
The Student Engagement Partnership recently published a new report on commuter students.. While there isn’t an agreed sector wide definition of commuter students, the report defined them as: “Those who travel to their higher education provider (HEP) from their parental or family home, which they lived in prior to entering higher education – rather than having re-located to live in student accommodation (or close to their HEP) for the purposes of studying.”
The report concluded that the process of physical commuting had presented some very practical barriers to student engagement beyond academic lectures and seminars, and that the structure and culture of HEPs has served to reinforce these barriers i.e. they are set up for those who live nearby. In terms of student success, the report concluded that commuter students were less likely to gain a “good honours” degree (1st of 2:1) and more likely to drop out. Such students are more likely to be mature, come from low-income households, take paid work during study, and have caring or parental responsibilities. The intersections are important here as they present multiple disadvantages and barrier to success.
What can be done?
So, the onus is very much on HEPs to be more inclusive of commuter students, to find out more about their expectations, challenges, experience and outcomes. Most institutions do not currently analyse their data by commuter status, but it is within our gift to look at the student body through this lens. In 2016/17, 40% (3,955) of the University of Derby’s full-time undergraduates and 78% (667) of the full-time postgraduates were commuters. We are talking here about a huge part of our student body. Examples are out there which show how the curriculum and resources can be re-organised and designed with commuter students in mind. We can look to learn from any existing best practice.
The Inclusive Derby Initiative
Inclusive Derby is an initiative that looks at students as individuals, considering their needs, and providing the most appropriate support to enable them to succeed. Free Unibus travel across our campuses just goes to show that small changes can make a big difference. Some of the other initiatives we are considering at Derby to lessen the impact of commuting are travel sharing, travel bursaries, more lockers, security for those who travel during unsociable hours, occasional overnight stays at affordable prices, and the possibility of campus based childcare. We are also looking at ways that academic engagement could be supported through the development of a commuter cohort identity, timetable adjustments, and greater access to facilities. Our calendar of enhancement and social events held during in the day is constantly growing and we encourage the use of social media to connect students living in the same places. There are so many ways to break free from the traditional model.
To find out more about Inclusive Derby, watch this series of videos about what the initiative means to Vice Chancellor, Kathryn Mitchell, students and staff.