The focus of my research is digital access and inequality within the group of students known as commuter students. When I started to read around the literature about students who had been labelled as commuters I was really surprised how diverse they were and how difficult it was to identify what it was that earned them that title. It appears I was not alone, as looking at the definitions,many institutions seem to have the same trouble. Of course, my interest is the digital student experience and I have tried to think about how their digital access is affected in the context of these situations. As it turns out, the label is misleading but convenient (administratively) but doesn’t really tell you the whole story. I guess ‘it complicated’ fits which is really why I wanted to try capture my observations. Here goes:
Definitions are really unhelpful.
These are hugely varied across the sector and depends on the institution’s perspective of what a commuter student is. If the university has on campus accommodation and the students are not in it, the definition might refer to the distance from the campus. If the university does not have accommodation but Halls are nearby then again, the distance travelled seems to be key. However, that could apply to most students and really, why is that of interest? There is a reason this group has been identified as worthy of consideration and from what I have read, some universities seem to have explored this in more detail than others. For those universities who have identified their commuters, the definitions seem to include social factors, such as students who are ‘living in their family home’. No social factors means that they are really not considered any different from those living in private accommodation. I am interested in students who are living in their family home and are only able to attend university if they attend their local university.
It is not (just) about commuting!
If it is not about commuting then why do we call them commuter students? Well, I guess it’s because it’s the only thing they have in common. The reasons students ‘choose’ to commute is key. The fact that that is how they attend it just a small part of the story. If they are lucky enough to have access to the resources they need and are not marginalised in any discernible way then they will probably not be severely impacted by the commuting, but these students are exceptions. Typically, they are commuting for different reasons, eg, they could not attend higher education in any other way due to their personal circumstances and because of that there is a higher risk that this will have a negative impact on their experience. To misquote Shrek “Ogres (Commuter Students) are like onions, they have layers”. Unfortunately, many of these layers identify with known inequalities, such as race, gender, income and class. Add the commuting layer and the impacts of these are magnified. And I haven’t even mentioned digital access yet.
So it is complicated but as more and more students are ‘choosing’ to attend their local university and live at home, at least 40%, a rise from 16% ten years ago, indicates that institutions may need to take this into account as the ‘traditional’ or optimal student experience is designed around students living away from home and will be at odds with how the majority of their students engage with their institutions.
Choice v Options
Is it really a matter of choice when you only have the option of your local university? If you are working, have children or caring responsibilities, cannot afford to move away from your family home, or if moving into university accommodation or living with other students is culturally inappropriate are your options then it is really not about ‘choosing’ to commute. If that is the only way that you can gain a degree (presumably to enable you to improve your circumstances) then that is what you do and you have to manage all of it over and above the requirements and structure of the programme. It is not a option that is taken lightly and so spare a thought for students who are caught between worlds and may not be able to engage during the set times and have to work around all their other commitments, or even have access to all the resources they need.
Networks and community
Belonging is a huge factor for many of these transient students. Culturally they may not fit into the pattern, ethos or design of the systems they find themselves and due to their circumstances they could be excluded from the usual rituals of bonding that happen in the UK higher education environments. If you are relying on meeting each other in real life as opposed to online (NB: we can see each other now, and some have quite rightly questioned what ‘face to face’ means if this is the case) then many commuting students will miss out. Time is precious and so are relationships. Bonding with your fellow students is one of the key attractions to many when coming to university. As important as getting a good degree can be the networks you become part of in your institution. This does not happen by accident but with added complications of the aforementioned social factors means that being in and out of university makes it harder to feel part of the academic community. This is important as it could mean that students are less likely to contribute to sessions, or seeking clarification, etc as they gain confidence by feeling part of something. They also miss out on those connections that could improve their social mobility. Not having the time, space or opportunity to development relationships can lead to feelings of not belonging. This is especially true for younger students. Despite the rise in the use of social media and apps to encourage communication, not everyone has the access they need. I wonder how much this has affected the student communities during the lockdown? (Commuting or not).
Finally, the ‘Digital Divide’
Commuting students, if they’re impacted by general inequality, may have this additional barrier to their success. We design programmes with an expectation that students have access to all available resources. From my experience, when we teach in higher education, we like to believe that the students have similar digital access to us or can access what they need. On campus we have secure, fast and reliable wifi (most of the time) and we have libraries, and in Halls internet access is sufficient. However, if the social inequalities are present (which the research shows they are and are exacerbated when the digital layer is applied) then when students are away from the things that the university provides, what then? How do students workaround these issues and are institutions flexible enough to adapt to their needs?
I’m interested to find out.
If you have any comments or questions, I’d love to hear from you.