UK: Reduce lecture days to help students who commute to university
Cost, time and unpredictability of travel can impeded commuter students' performance in university. Source: AFP/Ben Stansall

Most students in UK universities live in halls on-campus or in nearby surrounding areas. However, a significant minority still live at home or further away from campus and have to travel long distances to get to class.

The impact of this extra travelling is the subject of a report released earlier this month titled Homeward Bound: Defining, Understanding and Aiding ‘Commuter Students’ published by the Higher Education Policy Institute and led by David Maguire, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Greenwich, and David Morris, the Vice-Chancellor’s Policy Officer.

Commuting brings a specific set of logistical issues that can negatively impact a student’s performance in university.

Cost, time and the unpredictability of travel puts a toll on commuter students. It affects how they study and engage, in addition to other responsibilities they bear, such as family obligations or part-time work.

“There is evidence to suggest that, compared to residential students, commuter students obtain poorer outcomes from their higher education, and will be less engaged and satisfied with their academic experiences,” the report said.

The way university timetables are organised now, ie. “quite haphazard, with taught sessions squeezed on to a timetable wherever possible,” means that commuter students “might be more discerning than their closer peers when deciding whether a trip to their institution…is worthwhile”.

“The irony is that on-campus students want their classes evenly spaced out across the week, so they are not overwhelmed on any given morning or afternoon, whereas commuter students want the reverse. They want them to be blocked on to a small number of days, so they can come to uni, work flat out all day, get the work they need done and leave,” Professor Maguire said, as reported by Times Higher Education.

“Quite a few of them also have jobs, so they want their work blocked out. They also want their timetables to be really reliable, so they can organise their babysitting or commuting for every Tuesday or Thursday, whatever it is.”

The report recommends that universities should, “as much as logistically possible”, seek to make timetables “coherent and convenient” for commuter students, potentially by limiting the number of teaching days or commitments requiring peak-time travel. Students and students’ unions should be consulted on this, it says.

The report recommends universities organise their timetables so that commuter students do not have to travel at peak times to lectures and seminars.

In London, for example, the fares for peak-time travel can be up to 100 percent higher than off-peak fares – it can be hard, in this age of crippling student debt and high cost of living, to justify paying so much just to be on campus for a few hours.

Teaching days could be limited as well, the report suggested, without sacrificing on contact hours.

How a university approaches this will differ from one to another, depending on the proportion of commuter students compared to their entire student population.

The HEPI report identified at least 10 universities where more than half of their student population are still residing in their parents’ homes, while another 10 had more than 40 percent of commuter students.

A previous estimation by the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust found that around one in four of all UK students still reside at home. They are more likely to come from poorer or more disadvantaged backgrounds. Given the high cost of student accommodation in the UK today, it isn’t surprising why working-class youths are unable to move out of their family home to somewhere closer to campus.

The report, Home and Away: Social, Ethnic and Spatial Inequalities in Student Mobility, says that “moving to London, or other large cities in the UK, can be an ‘escalator’ for social mobility. But too often, the opportunity to move away to attend university is restricted to those from better off homes”.

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