Report Overview

Student mobility, whether or not a student leaves home to study and how far they are willing to travel if so, is a major dimension of inequality within higher education choice and experience. Authored by Michael Donnelly and Sol Gamsu from the University of Bath, this research explores how staying at home and studying locally is strongly differentiated by ethnicity and social background.


Over half of young people go to university near where they grew up


Students from poorer backgrounds are three times more likely to commute to uni from home.


British Bangladeshi and Pakistani students are six times more likely to study locally.

Executive Summary
  • The majority of young people (55.8% in 2014/15) stay local for university; attending a university less than 55 miles away from their home address. Only one in ten students attend a university over 150 miles from home, and those that do are socially, ethnically and geographically distinct groups.
  • In absolute terms the number of commuter students over all distances has increased since 2009-10 (from 72310 to 77945). With rising young undergraduate student numbers, this actually equates to a small percentage drop but many institutions have seen substantial increases in the proportion of commuter students they now recruit. London universities in particular have seen substantial percentage increases, suggesting that rising housing costs and debt are changing students’ choices in the capital.
  • Social class is a key factor which drives the mobility choices of young people, with disadvantaged students less likely to leave home and travel further. Over three times more students in the lowest social class group commute from home than do so from the highest group (44.9% compared with 13.1%). In contrast, leaving home and attending a distant university is too often the preserve of white, middle class, privately educated young people.
  • Controlling for other factors including class, location and attainment, state school students are 2.6 times more likely to stay at home and study locally than their privately educated counterparts.
  • British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi students are over six times more likely than White students to stay living at home and study locally – with the chances increasing substantially since the increase in fees to £9,000. Whilst cultural differences might explain some of this disparity, it also underscores the fact that many universities remain white-dominated spaces, limiting university choices for BAME students who may feel more comfortable in a more diverse university.
  • The increase in tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012 has not substantially affected overall trends in student mobility. For the young, full-time students analysed here, there is no evidence of a substantial rise in students staying at home and attending their local university. However there have been small changes that have made some less advantaged groups more immobile.
  • Where young people live in the UK is a further contributing factor in predicting the likelihood they will be mobile, above and beyond their social class and ethnicity. Those in northern regions of England, especially the north east, are much less likely to be mobile compared to those in the south.
  • Scottish students appear to have become less likely to leave Scotland for university 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 fee increase in England of 2012.
  • The report provides a breakdown of patterns of student recruitment for each individual university, highlighting the enormous contrasts between universities. Student mobility on entry to university occurs against a backdrop of highly unequal access to cultural enrichment and outreach for students at post-16.
  1. Young people from less affluent backgrounds should receive greater financial assistance to help meet the increased costs associated with moving out, including restoring maintenance grants and lowering fees for the less well-off.
  2. Financial support should also be provided that is specific to the financial realities of commuting significant distances to university, given the socio-economic profile of commuter students.
  3. Universities should consider more flexible timetabling of lectures where they have seen large increases in students commuting from the family home to attend university.
  4. Universities should work to reassure families who may discourage their children from studying away from home for cultural reasons. Outreach activities, open days and summer schools such as the Sutton Trust UK Summer School programme can help to reassure such students – and their parents.
  5. A specific spatial element should be included in future university access agreements, including a focus on peripheral geographical areas. There is a notable lack of provision of university outreach in peripheral areas, in stark contrast to working-class schools and colleges in London which often receive high levels of engagement.
  6. Selective universities should consider reserving a proportion of places for local working-class students. Such changes must also be accompanied by the creation of an academic, cultural and social environment that is amenable to these students.
  7. Halal Student Loans are needed to enable Muslim students to borrow money in accordance with their religious beliefs so that – if they wish to do so – they have the same opportunities for mobility as their non-Muslim peers.