The Access to Birmingham (A2B) programme is a flagship widening participation (WP) scheme of which the University of Birmingham can be very proud. The scheme offers students from groups with low progression into Higher Education the opportunity to access courses at a Russell Group University. By providing an alternative offer two (or in the case of Medicine, three) grades below the standard A-level offer, A2B goes some way towards levelling the playing field for these students. As well as raising aspirations and offering a realistic opportunity to study with us, A2B and the introduction of our Routes to the Professions (R2P) programmes across several Colleges, also support students in making the transition from school to a new learning environment. However, the inequality of opportunity that these students have faced during their schooling does not end when they arrive on campus at the start of their first year. An inclusive education at a research-intensive University like ours must mean equality of opportunity for all students to make the most of what higher education has to offer. Inclusivity must not be limited only to academic opportunities but also to the additional elements of University life.
The recent Sutton Trust report ‘Home and Away’, which was published at the end of February 2018, shows that students from the lowest social class are three-times more likely to make a daily commute from the family home to University compared to those from the highest class. Therefore, whether the reasons for this are financial or societal, these poorer students face additional challenges. For some time, I have felt that the additional pressures that students from WP backgrounds face as they make long commutes to and from the campus each day may limit their chances of reaching their full potential. Not only does commuting take up a significant amount of time which might be used for independent study but living away from campus may limit the opportunity to participate in the informal study groups that form between fellow students on a course or in halls of residence and private rented accommodation. In addition to this academic support, the opportunity to form close friendships and peer support networks is simply made more difficult by the geographical distance commuting imposes.
However, there are clearly also benefits to living in the family home or in familiar surroundings. There will be the continuation of long-established support networks of family and friends, and perhaps fewer day-to-day ‘house-keeping’ responsibilities such as the sharing of utility bills, cleaning rotas, cooking, shopping and laundry. There may also be significant financial benefits to not renting student accommodation or in the private sector; although commuting at peak times can be a significant financial burden. Perhaps as there are an increasing number of students living at home we need to consider how we provide our education and other services to students to ensure that student leaving on or near, and students living further away from campus can make the most of what University has to offer.
The proximity of students living in halls of residence or in the surrounding area to the wealth of educational and other facilities that campus has to offer means that they are better placed to take advantage of these than commuter students. For example, a student living on campus can take advantage of long opening hours at University libraries and the wealth of well-equipped study spaces around campus, breaking up their day with a workout at the nearby and reasonably priced Sports Centre. A commuter student may struggle to find suitable study space in the family home and might have more difficulty accessing resources and facilities to support their learning and development and more generally their well-being while they are on the move. Are there ways in which we can specifically support commuter students? For example, could we aim to ensure that the content on Canvas is mobile compatible, could we develop partnerships with local council libraries or other organisations to provide suitable and well-equipped study spaces across the region, and could we support access to sporting facilities at an equivalent cost to on campus with private providers?
Living on or near campus makes it easier to participate in our Guild of Students’ enormous array of societies and student groups. As well as the direct experiences that these opportunities bring, there is also the chance to further develop the skills and aptitudes that employers are seeking. Moreover, in addition to the enhancement to students’ academic and personal development, the life-long connections and relationships that can be initiated by participating in clubs and societies may increase the social capital which is so important for social mobility. Perhaps the provision of late-night transport or the opportunity to occasionally stay overnight on campus at a reasonable cost may go some way towards supporting all students to access these opportunities.
Finally, for many the opportunity to move away from home is the first step on the road to adulthood. Having to ensure that you are able to feed yourself, have clean clothes to wear and organise bills and cleaning rotas with house mates, all within the safe environment of the University community, can be an important move towards independence. Indeed, the chance to try new things and maybe even make a few mistakes, without the safety net of family directly on hand, may be important for students to explore who they are and to develop the resilience they will need when they arrive in the workplace. Our excellent Careers Network with its new Access to your Careers (A2C) programme is in part compensating for the deficit in social capital experienced by our WP students. However, if it is our ambition is to offer a fully inclusive education and University experience to all our students, perhaps we need to look at ways to support students from all backgrounds, who want to live on or near campus, to take advantage of its wonderful opportunities.