Prior to the start of the academic year, there were lots of media articles about the rise in commuter students.
What’s it actually like to be a commuter student? How can universities support them better? We spoke to Emma Maslin, a PhD researcher at Durham University, to find out more.
Emma’s PhD research looks at the experiences of students who commute to university. It’s centred in the North East and Yorkshire regions.
She chose her topic because there’s a lack of commuter student research in general, and the northeast has one of the highest percentages of commuter students in the UK, based on available statistics.
“I wanted to do ethnographic research. I could have emailed or interviewed people, but I wanted to experience the commute with students.”
For the layperson, ethnographic research means spending time with the people you’re studying, and that’s exactly what Emma did. She spent six months on trains and buses, in cafés, and standing outside in the rain with commuter students to learn what it was like to be them.
What types of students commute?
The types of students who commute are often those considered as ‘underrepresented’ in higher education, according to Emma’s research.
Approximately half of her participants were mature students (aged 21 or over). There were also students from ethnic minority backgrounds, low-income backgrounds, and those with children or other caring responsibilities.
Just as the nature of commuter students varies, Emma found that the reasons why students commute are equally diverse.
A mature student who owns a property is unlikely to want to move into student accommodation. Similarly for a student with children or other caring responsibilities. Further, there might be financial, cultural, or familial reasons why a student lives in a home setting.
What issues do commuter students face?
Emma says that commuter students face issues at all stages of the student lifecycle, but she outlined some of the most prominent for us.
Using public transport regularly can be a stressful, tiring and costly experience. Emma’s participants had journey times ranging from 15 minutes up to two hours for a one-way commute to university.
Even if participants had their own transport, this didn’t eradicate travel issues. Car parking could be problematic, depending the availability of student permits and parking spaces on campus.
The cost of living increases have also had an impact. In the months Emma was travelling with some students, their train fare went up by a pound.
“A pound might not sound much, but if it’s a pound every journey you’re making, then it all adds up.”
Emma notes that commuting has been seen as a ‘cheaper’ way for students to access higher education, but there lots of associated costs to be considered.
The practicalities of spending all day on campus were also raised by Emma’s participants.
If no kitchen facilities are available on campus (or students are unaware of them), then commuters won’t be able to heat up a meal from home or make a hot drink. This was a pertinent issue, as Emma’s research took place in the winter months.
Similarly, if no storage facilities are available then students have to lug their belongings around all day. Even for a driver, it might not be practical to leave items in your car if where you’re allowed to park is a 20-minute walk from where your lectures are delivered.
Emma explains that timetabling is the one of the most common issues that commuter students face.
“… any early sessions or late sessions, [students] have to contend with rush hour, the trains are more expensive, the travel times are longer. If you’re a parent, and you’ve got to do pick up, that can be really tricky.”
Further, staff understanding about this can be hit and miss, according to Emma’s research. Some staff were very understanding, allowing students to move to a different class. However, one participant spoke about how their academic had marked them absent, even though they’d arrived.
Wider student experience
Emma found that commuter students often end up missing out on societies, social events and extracurricular activities.
There’s a reluctance to get involved – students must choose between staying late on campus versus getting home earlier for part-time work or other responsibilities.
However, Emma notes, students can also have a pick and mix attitude to wider activities. Just because they aren’t involved in societies now, it doesn’t mean they won’t get involved later. Or maybe they’ve already been involved but have chosen to no longer take part.
“There’s a lot of caveats depending on other characteristics … commuter students are really diverse and quite different … even students within the same institution … didn’t all have the same experiences and didn’t interact with the university in the same way.”
What measures could universities put into place to help commuter students?
Emma states that lecture capture is incredibly important – more on that later.
We’ve already mentioned timetabling, and Emma’s research found that more intuitive timetabling can help all students – not just those commuting.
She observes that some universities are trialling compact timetables, allowing students to attend campus three days a week. This helps with cutting costs and supports the increasing numbers of students with part-time jobs.
For Emma, one essential measure is to establish a sector definition of what we mean by ‘commuter students’, which currently doesn’t exist. This would enable better understanding at both sectoral and institutional levels.
There also needs to be more visible acknowledgement by universities of commuter students. Some universities don’t know who their commuter students are because they don’t purposefully collect that data.
“… asking their students what they need, and what they want. I think these are really important starting blocks.”
Emma points out that some institutions are already doing lots of work to support their commuter students. Other institutions could learn from them what works well. However, she stresses that regional context is key.
What is the role of flexible, online learning in supporting commuter students?
Online learning is not a new concept. However, the pandemic has opened up more possibilities, as Emma observes.
We’ve already looked at how commuter students may have to carry all their belongings around. Emma notes the many benefits of eBooks, which extend to all students.
“… more than one student can access [them] at one time … being able to access [them] anywhere … you’re not having to lug books back from university all the time …”
Emma says that some academics have concerns that lecture capture encourages students not to attend classes in person. However, her research found that lecture capture had a positive impact on learning.
When there was an unforeseen circumstance, such as students not being able to travel because of heavy snowfall, they were still able to access their learning materials.
Many of her participants spoke about rewatching lecture recordings. It helped them tackle assignments, revise for exams and cement their understanding.
“It’s not about replacing things … it’s more about making it easier.”
Emma observes that many workplaces have a mixed approach post-pandemic. It’s now considered normal in some sectors for staff to work from home for at least part of the week.
She points out that it makes sense for universities to follow suit, offering a blended approach to learning where students can access resources and support from home.
To find out more about Emma’s research, contact: email@example.com or follow Emma on X/Twitter: @emaslin94.