London HE Week: exploring the impact of commuting on students

London HE week saw London Higher hosting an event to address the capital-specific key questions being asked by many of its members: is there a link between commuting and student engagement and can commuting be an underlying factor impacting on student outcomes in London, forming part of the “London effect”?

The Commuter Students event on 18 July provided an overview of data analysis carried out on commuter students as well as the results of student-led focus groups, as part of a collaborative research project.

Kingston University used data on UK-domiciled full-time undergraduate students from 2015/16 and estimated travel time for this group. Results indicated that students from widening participation backgrounds were more likely to travel longer to campus than their peers. Additionally students who were the first in the family to go to university, those from low deprivation areas and BAME students were more likely to travel for longer. An overall prediction was for every 10 minutes of commuting time, the student progression rate was reduced by 1.5%.

A similar analysis of travel time and student characteristics by the University of Greenwich did not find commuting time was statistically important, but was possibly linked to factors such as ethnicity and term time address. Students studying at two of their four faculties had very short journey times, probably since faculties are recruiting students nationally who are then housed in halls close to campus.

Professor Liz Thomas presented findings from focus groups held at five universities involving a total of 38 students. Many factors affecting commuting students – and not all of these are negative! Some students outlined the positives to commuting such as family support and being able to separate home life from study. Challenges noted included costs, stress of travelling (impacting mental health), lack of physical space, expensive food on campus, tiredness, and difficulties in engaging with social activities.

Nine recommendations have been made for institutions based on the student focus group work in London, as follows:

A short break out session was held after the presentations where attendees were asked to consider questions such as the definition of a commuter student, institutional analysis of commuters and possible interventions, and recommendations to policy makers.  These were summarised at the end of the event and will be incorporated in the final reports due to be released in early July.