Dr Michael Donnelly, lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Bath, introduces our latest piece of research on student mobility.  

Going to university is often imagined to be a time when young people will leave home and move far away to a new place. The reality in today’s era of high tuition fees is quite different – with students who commute over significant distances on the rise and most people staying fairly local to go to university.

Using the latest census data from the entire student population, our new report for the Sutton Trust shows that a small proportion of students (just one in ten students attends a university over 150 miles from home), with over half (55%) attending a university less than 57 miles from home.

These overall trends, however, mask enormous inequalities between different social and ethnic groups, which make leaving home and moving away a hugely unequal social phenomena in contemporary UK society.  Leaving the family home and moving far away for university is something you’re more likely to do if you’re white, middle class and privately educated – which has huge implications in terms of access, unequal university experiences, and ultimate success in the graduate labour market.

Students in the lowest social class groups are three times as likely to commute to university from home as those from the highest group (44.9% compared with 13.1%).  State school students are 2.6 times more likely to stay at home and study locally than their privately educated peers. Significant differences also exist between different ethnic groups.  British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi students are over six times more likely than White students to stay living at home and study locally – a trend that has strengthened since the 2012 tuition fee increase.

The places where young people come from also makes a difference. 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. There are also huge variations between universities themselves. In some universities, such as the University of Wolverhampton, Glasgow Caledonian University and City University in London, well over 50% of students live locally and in the family home.  In other universities like Durham, long-distance re-location for study is the norm.

It is not difficult to see how these unequal patterns in student mobility could potentially be holding some young people back – not just in terms of their access to educational opportunities but also inequalities in the kinds of experiences they have in their transition to university.  Not being able to move away could be a barrier to accessing research-intensive universities for those high-achieving disadvantaged young people.  Equally, particular courses taught at only a few universities (Medicine, Veterinary Science) could be out of the geographic reach of disadvantaged youth.

University is a time of transition for young people, a time spent developing independence, building important life skills and when new kinds of social connections are made that can last a lifetime.  Unequal access to these kinds of experiences could also produce knock on effects as young people come to enter the labour market, exacerbating existing and deep-seated inequalities further.

Clearly there are things that Government and universities can do to address these inequalities – which show no sign of declining.  In our report, we suggest key actions that can be taken and the current funding review presents the ideal opportunity to take seriously unequal mobilities in higher education.

The post-18 funding review should consider reintroducing maintenance grants and means-tested fees. This would remove some of the financial barriers that poorer students face in moving away to university. Universities also need to cater to the realities of existing ‘commuter students’, including through more flexible timetabling and e-learning.

Dr Michael Donnelly is a lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Bath.  

This blog also appears on WonkHE.

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