Disadvantaged students across the UK are over three times more likely to live at home while attending university than their most advantaged counterparts, new research from the Sutton Trust reveals today in a report that also finds that more than half of students go to university less than 55 miles from their family home.

The prevalence of ‘commuter students’ is identified in the report Home and Away, by Michael Donnelly and Sol Gamsu from the University of Bath. This examines the extent of student mobility in the UK –  who leaves home and who doesn’t, as well as how far different groups travel.

Student mobility is a major factor in the higher education access gap, as students’ access to the best universities can be limited without travelling significant distances, while those living at home may miss out on wider university activities that improve their networks and life skills.

The report finds that your likelihood of moving out of the family home to a distant university to study is linked to social class. Almost a quarter of all students live at home and commute a short distance to university. The chances of doing so increase significantly the more disadvantaged the social group. 13% of the top social group live at home while for the bottom group it is 45%.

State school students are also much more likely to go to university near where they grew up compared to their privately educated peers. While a majority (56%) of young people go to university less than 55 miles from home, state school students are two and a half times more likely to live at home compared to those who went to a private school.

Ethnicity is also an important factor in patterns of mobility, with British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi students over six times more likely than White students to stay living at home and study locally. This trend strengthened since the 2012 tuition fee increase in England.

Just one in ten students attends a university over 150 miles from home. The report highlights how these students are more likely to attend some universities rather than others. At the University of Wolverhampton, Glasgow Caledonian University and City University, for example, well over 50% of students still live at home. In other ‘peripheral elite’ universities such as St Andrews or Durham, long-distance re-location for study is the norm.

Those in northern regions of England, especially the north east, are much less likely to move big distances to go to university than those in the south. Scottish students have become less likely to leave Scotland for university too, with long-distance moves to study at university declining relative to other UK regions. The Scottish tendency to stay North of the border for university may have been reinforced by the trebling of fees to £9000 in England of 2012.

Almost three quarters (72.4%) of Scottish students attend a nearby university, more than the 56% in the UK as a whole who do so. Scottish students are more likely to live at home while studying too, with just over a third (35%) doing so, compared to 23% for the UK as a whole.

To address the gaps in student mobility, the Sutton Trust is calling for greater financial assistance for students from low-income homes. The newly announced Review of Post-18 Education should consider reforming student finance by reintroducing maintenance grants and means-tested fees. But it should also cater to the realities of existing ‘commuter students’ and ensure that such routes don’t result in a two-tier university experience for those from different social backgrounds.

The report also recommends that:

  • Universities work to reassure families who may discourage their children from studying away from home for cultural reasons.
  • Selective universities should consider reserving a proportion of places for local working-class students.
  • Universities should consider more flexible time-tabling of lectures where they have seen large increases in students commuting from the family home to attend university.
  • Student loans are made available in a form that would enable Muslim students to borrow money in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“Our research shows that disadvantaged students are over three times more likely to live at home while attending university than their more advantaged peers.  This has become more pronounced for some groups since the introduction of tuition fees of £9000 per year in 2012, meaning that for students living at home access to the most selective universities is limited.  They are likely to miss out on wider university activities that improve their essential life skills.

“In light of these findings the Sutton Trust is calling for selective universities to reserve a proportion of places for local low and moderate-income students as well as the re-introduction of maintenance grants and the introduction of means-tested tuition fees.

“Home or away, every student deserves access to the best higher educational opportunities. Getting this right has an important role in social mobility.”

Dr. Michael Donnelly, Lecturer and ESRC Future Research Leader in the Department of Education, University of Bath, said:

“The traditional view of what it means to go away to university, moving out and far away, is very much the preserve of white, middle class and privately educated young people from the South of England. These differences represent a consistent and growing divide in higher education experiences.

“Whilst moving away is not for everyone, some of the most disadvantaged young people could be being prevented from accessing new opportunities and social networks further afield, or developing important life skills through living independently – further damaging chances for social mobility.”


  • The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  • Home and Away: Social, Ethnic and Spatial Inequalities in Student Mobility will be available at 0001 on Thursday 22nd February 2018 from the Sutton Trust website.
  • Dr Michael Donnelly is a lecturer in the Department of Education, University of Bath
  • Dr Sol Gamsu is a researcher in the Department of Education, University of Bath.
  • Data in this report is drawn from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), and covers all domestic full-time students under 21 attending university in the UK in 2009/10 and 2014/15. Students were grouped into a matrix of six categories based on whether they were living in the family home (‘commuters’ and ‘movers’), and the distance from their home to university (0-57 miles, 57-152 miles, 152 miles and above).

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