According to a recent report by HEPI, 63.9% of full-time, UK domiciled, undergraduate students are living in the ‘parental/guardian home’, which means they are classed as ‘commuter students’. Before coming to City, I have to admit that I hadn’t really come across the term before, but it’s certainly one that I have become more acquainted with and the reason for attending the Commuter Students in London seminar on 18 June run by London Higher. On discovering the venue, I was delighted to finally get to visit the BT Tower. Unfortunately we weren’t whisked to the top of the tower to see the views, but instead enjoyed an interesting seminar in a windowless room at the bottom.
The event presented recent research on commuter students in London universities and focussed on the following two aspects:
Investigating the link between commuter time and student progression
Eglė Butt (Kingston University London) and Karl Molden (University of Greenwich) each presented on quantitative research in their institutions to investigate whether there exists a correlation between commute time and student progression. The research widened the definition of a commuter student by considering all full-time undergraduates travelling to campus rather than only students living in the parental/guardian home. Eglė described the rationale for the Kingston study – they had noted an increasing number of students travelling to Kingston by train and TEF metrics reported lower student outcomes at London institutions. They originally plotted students’ term-time post-codes on a map and noticed that students closer to the institution seemed to progress better. This was followed up with an analysis of travel time for over 2,800 undergraduates which identified two peaks of travel time around 10-20 minutes and 60-80 minutes. Students from widening participation backgrounds were noted as having longer travel times. When plotting time against progression the median travel time for students who did not progress at the first attempt was longer (66 minutes) than for those who progressed (50 minutes). For Kingston, there was clearly a link between progression and commute time and the project has raised awareness of the barriers that commuting students might face. To further understand these barriers they have added questions about commuting into student satisfaction surveys to understand the effect of travel time on satisfaction. They have also convened a task and finish group to discuss support for commuter students which has resulted in a commuter flag being applied to students for timetabling purposes and for display on student dashboards. They have also introduced overnight accommodation which can be booked by students and is especially useful around exam periods.
Karl then presented the research from Greenwich, which used Kingston’s framework for analysis. Again a bimodel distribution of travel time was noted, with peaks at 20 minutes or less and 50 or greater. Greenwich reported that there was a clear split by faculty such that two faculties had lower commute times overall, compare to the other two where the pattern is more represenative of the overall picture. In terms of demographics, they noted that younger students had a shorter commute and BAME students had a median of 50 minutes, whilst white students had a median of 25 minutes. However, Greenwich reported that travel time was not a significant indicator of progression, with other factors such as age, gender, ethnicity and disability all more significant. As a follow-up to the study, Karl reported on an interesting analysis of commute times against attendance data and reported that those with longer commutes had better attendance for 9am lectures than those with shorter commutes.
Student perceptions of commuting
Professor Liz Thomas (Liz Thomas Associates), presented the qualitative aspect of the research, which ran in parallel with the quantitative analysis, and involved five London universities: Greenwich, Kingston, Middlesex, SOAS and University of East London. Workshops were run by trained student peer researchers from each institution, supported by a member of staff, to learn about the experience of commuting and studying and to understand how institutions can better support commuter students.
In terms of feelings towards commuting, some students felt it was a positive choice which meant they could live at home with the support of their family, whilst others felt they had no alternative, for example due to financial or health reasons. Some felt that a benefit of commuting was not being distracted from their studies by the social aspects of student life and enjoyed the separation between home and study.
In terms of challenges, there were many identified and students felt that institutions should make them more aware of these up front. In some cases students had changed courses as a result of the challenges. Challenges included:
- cost and stress of travelling
- lack of parking
- lack of services on campus (nowhere to put your stuff, expensive food, no physical space to connect to)
- expectations about timetable (can we make a timetable commuter friendly or just be clearer up front about expectations around attendance)
- tiredness/impact on wellbeing
- lack of access to university accommodation because they are deemed to live too close to qualify
When considering the impact on a student’s engagement and experience there was felt to be an impact on academic engagement as a result of the students trying to reduce their travel time and costs. For example, selective attendance, where students choose to avoid peak time costs/travel or don’t come in when they only have one timetabled session. They may need to leave early due to travel times, which could impact on missing key information at the end of sessions or missing out on informal learning opportunities. Not being on campus as much limits their participation in group work. In addition, they may want access to the library at alternative times – some favoured coming in at the weekends or really early. Students hadn’t antcipated that there might be a negative impact from commuting, feeling it was good preparation for employment, however they realised that their patterns of engagement could impact on their attainment. In addition, they felt that academics might have the perception that they are less conscientious students as they weren’t seen on campus as much, which could impact on their references/graduate employment opportunities. Despite this, the majority of students felt that the negatives were outweighed by the lack of distractions, such as the social side of the university experience.
Some students did want to be more involved in the social side, but felt that commuting impacted on their social engagement. For example, social activities often start later in the evening and focused around student halls and therefore the publicity doesn’t always reach commuting students. They would also like to have more social activities aimed at commuter students.
Some of the suggestions for improving the experience included:
- Information and communication – enable students to make more informed decisions about being commuters, e.g. case studies about commuter students.
- Develop commuter communities, such as the Commuter Student Forum at Kingston, to ensure they aren’t excluded from communications about events and provide events where they can meet other commuter students.
- Greater use of social media for class cancellations, rather than note on the door.
- Support them with the practicalities of travelling – cycle scheme, provide buses from commuter hotspots.
- Provide space on campus for storing things, such as sports kit, clothes.
- Remove the embarrassment factor associated with arriving late, which could prevent them from going into lectures.
- Recognise what commuter students can offer, rather than framing them as the problem.
- Develop a commuter-friendly curriculum, e.g. commuter-friendly timetables and greater use of educational technologies.
Overall it was an enlightening seminar and I could see several opportunities where educational technologies could help commuter students with engagement, such as being able to download lecture recordings to watch whilst travelling or making it easier to carry out group work online.