by Jackie Powell
There is currently much discussion about how best to track students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, into and though higher education. Moves are afoot to measure attendance, retention, progression and attainment right through to graduate destinations.
Most outreach work is focused on encouraging a more diverse range of applicants into higher education, but in terms of social mobility this is only the first step. Whilst applications to university from financially disadvantaged groups have risen, the proportion in top companies, higher level careers and postgraduate courses has not changed to the same extent. Gender, race, and disability have also been identified as factors in outcomes which are lower than expected. Not only is this morally indefensible, but it can deter applicants who become aware that a degree does not always open up the opportunities anticipated. One category at risk of not progressing well and which contains a higher number of those in disadvantaged groups are ‘commuter students’ – those who live at home and attend institutions within daily travelling distance.
Commuter students are not a homogeneous group. The reasons for commuting depend on variables such as age, location and socio-economic position. Mature students often fall into the commuting category for obvious reasons. There are also likely to be more commuters in and around big cities where transport is more easily accessible.
The cost of living is seen as a major factor in commuting, and there is truth in this; maintenance loans available do not cover the cost of living independently, and many families cannot afford to make up the shortfall. However, finance can be important in other ways. Commuter students often have part-time jobs near to home which support their studies but also, in some cases, are a major or even the only contribution to the family income. The jobs may need to be prioritised over study some of the time, and there can be pressure from employers to take on longer hours. If a student is unfamiliar with the demands of higher education, the number of contact hours can appear low and the need for independent study underestimated. In these cases, the proposed expansion of two-year degree courses is not the answer. Part-time work makes a longer study week and year more difficult.
The role of families and cultural influence on progression to higher education has long been recognised. Despite the increase in applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, debt aversion remains a real concern, and living at home whilst borrowing the minimum seems the obvious solution. If students are the first in the family to go to university, they may veer towards staying with the familiar rather than to an environment in which they don’t feel comfortable. Irrespective of finance, there may be family and peer group resistance to students moving out of the area.
Commuting is certainly a good option for some, but there is no doubt that it can limit the opportunity for other experiences of value to a future graduate. It is often what students do in the spaces between learning that give them an edge when applying for graduate positions, an ironically similar position to that which applies when students consider selective courses or institutions.
There are geographical differences in the significance of commuting. In London and bigger cities, there are often more higher education institutions, easier transport links, and visible opportunities for graduate careers. This is not the case in coastal and rural areas and in the hinterland of cities where key industries offering lifetime employment with few qualifications have not been replaced and graduate opportunities are limited. For these reasons the suggestion of having community-based university centres, whilst attractive to local students, may not be the solution to their longer- term social mobility, and may reinforce reluctance to travel for work on graduating.
The recent focus of the importance of work experience and internships, often unpaid, for some graduate careers is again a deterrent due to location and cost, which has highlighted the difficulty of accessing these without financial backing. A recent study by the Sutton Trust estimated the cost of a six-month long internship in London at £6,614.
Degree apprenticeships have been suggested as a golden opportunity for those who are concerned about the cost and value of university or those who simply don’t want to go. Studying whilst being paid and gaining real experience was anticipated to be popular within communities where getting a job is seen as the better option. However, there is evidence in some sectors that more degree apprenticeships are taken by those from more affluent backgrounds. The grade requirements can be very high, and although the university offering them may be local, the apprenticeships themselves are not, so resistance to moving away may again prevent their uptake.
In terms of what universities can do to improve the prospects for commuter students, the first step is an understanding of their motivation and the issues which may arise for them. The teams which monitor, measure and report on progress of students are unlikely to include outreach practitioners, although all the factors above will be familiar to those with significant experience in this work. It is helpful to include at least some of them in discussion; their observations in the field may offer some useful insights yet are not usually considered.
The focus on evaluation of outreach activity does give an opportunity for identifying and tracking individual students who for any reason are at risk of not achieving their potential, and potentially gives opportunities for intervention. However, there is the sensitive issue of how to approach individuals, where identification as part of a group requiring ‘special attention’ may be unwelcome.
The student voice is important here. School pupils are used to being identified within groups and there is no reason why university students would not respond positively providing the reasons are openly discussed. The NUS is already involved in outreach in many areas and would be a useful way of organising discussions. The potential for students as role models or mentors in their own communities and schools is also evident and could be a starting point for discussion.
The influence of parents is key, and many of them are keen to encourage their offspring to do well and have better opportunities than they did but may not know how best to do this. Many universities are already focus on parents as a target group, with parent ambassadors, specific events and outreach programmes in outlying communities or by making resources available to the public in such a way that the university is seen as a facility for all rather than an elite institution.
The transitional period between the offer of a place and starting a course is important, not just from the standpoint of securing attendance at the start of the course, but to ensure the academic, social, mental and emotional preparedness of students for starting higher education. Parents could again be involved, and some universities are addressing this.
Clearly universities can’t solve the problems of social mobility on their own, yet they are criticised for not doing more with fewer resources. Currently social mobility seems to depend on geographical mobility, with the exodus of graduates to the capital showing little sign of abating, although not many of these are commuter students and there are many who want to leave again after gaining experience. We need to provide opportunities for graduate employment across the country, and local businesses and economies need graduates to develop and prosper. What is really needed is a much more robust regional policy, and that is out of the hands of higher education.
Jackie Powell is a higher education consultant and member of the FACE Executive.