The Covid-19 pandemic is causing many young people in the UK to re-evaluate their educational choices. While it seems would-be students are not being deterred from university as much as was feared, it is likely many will opt to commute from home, shunning the challenges – and the cost – of sharing kitchens and bathrooms in university accommodation.
The stay-at-home trend was accelerating even before Covid-19. Yet these students still fall beneath the radar. Some universities are even sniffy about those who decline the “full” campus experience.
Attempts to involve stay-at-home students in campus activities can be clumsy and misguided. Buddy schemes suppose they yearn for companionship, when many already have full social lives. Underlying assumptions can reflect an outdated notion of the ideal student: white, well-off, and hundreds of miles from home.
The proportion of stay-at-home undergraduates in the UK has risen from around 8% in the late 1980s and early 1990s to around 21% in 2018-19. Newman University in Birmingham now classifies 93% of undergraduates as commuter students. Such students are more likely to be from a lower-income household and to be the first in their family to attend university. British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi students are more than six times more likely than their white peers to continue living with their parents or guardians.
Chandeliers, cinema and 24/7 gym – student digs at up to £19k a year
Older generations of graduates, including university leaders, tend to assume these students are missing out. They recall their own desperation to escape their parents’ clutches, and grow wistful at having “found themselves” during a life-defining undergraduate experience. It is not always acknowledged that the context was very different: in many cases, their fees were covered by the state and they were carefree because university was cost-free.
The stay-at-home option became more attractive at English universities as fees started to rise. Young people are keen to avoid exorbitant rents on top, and universities tend to underestimate how necessary paid employment can be for some. A recent freedom of information request found that only eight universities knew how many hours their students spend at work, and just two had any information about how this might affect their grades.
Autumn of student activism begins over rising cost of university halls
The relationship that elite universities have with their stay-at-home students often mirrors an uneasy rapport with “the community” more generally – historically known as the town and gown divide. Despite universities’ claims they are civic institutions, not all readily share their facilities. Some open their doors for once-a-year events, while closely guarding entry for the rest of the time. Others boast of research partnerships with local residents, while exploiting them as convenient sources of data.
It is no coincidence that stay-at-home students are disproportionately from ethnic minorities and of working class origins. Their sense is often that the higher education sector has been blind to issues of racism, and slow to address deep-rooted snobbery.
Regardless of where students are living, drugs and partying are off the menu now for many. Their identities are forged online, and they connect primarily through social media. Mental health is a priority. A lot of students wouldn’t know where to find the students’ union bar.
If Covid-19 makes the stay-at-home option more appealing, this is something to celebrate, not regret. The students I teach who live at home are invariably an asset, bringing important alternative perspectives and enlivening academic discussions.
Crucially, stay-at-home students take the university back to their own neighbourhoods, doing invisible but invaluable access work on their institution’s behalf. Informal chats with friends who are not students can demystify higher education. Stories are told. Social and cultural capital is shared. Perceptions are changed. Slowly, going to university becomes a thinkable option for other young people in society’s most marginalised groups.
Commuter students: locked out, left out and growing in number
All universities may soon be forced to re-examine their provision for stay-at-home students, for financial reasons if nothing else. Applicants are no longer as financially, geographically and socially mobile as the sector imagines. The number of mature students at English universities is beginning to recover following a drop after the 2012 fee increase.
Many people have indicated that the pandemic has rekindled a long-lost academic curiosity. The higher education sector – by accident rather than design – suddenly seems more available to those who used to be on its fringes.
Universities now need to focus on practical measures. Stay-at-home students don’t always have access to the working space and wifi that their peers in halls take for granted. Employment or caring commitments may prevent some from engaging fully with group work, or socialising after hours.
In years to come, “stay-at-home” may become a redundant description. The preferred mode of engagement could be changing for all young people. Even middle-class students are beginning to choose economic and emotional security over a more immersive experience. Soon, universities may have to come up with a new label for the minority of students who insist on the old-fashioned way.
Source: Read Full Article