Earlier this year we recruited and paid a student to do a one off piece of research for Liverpool Students’ Union. They were employed for an 8 week period on a part time basis as our Commuter Students’ Researcher. The aim of this research was to gain an insight into the lives of students who commute from their pre-existing home to Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and have not moved specifically to start on their course of study. This research involved contacting stakeholders within LiverpoolSU and LJMU to understand what we all collectively wanted from the research and a qualitative survey to then be administered to commuter/home students through telephone interviews.
What do we know already?
Research from Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) suggests that in 2013, 297,870 students commuted from home to university, however, many of these home students have not be seen as different to other students (Independent, 2013). Often, universities group students into various categories such as age, gender and ethnicity, in order to monitor academic performance and to implement necessary change, however, as commuter students are often not seen as different, it is difficult to identify the needs of these students to ensure that they love student life.
It is evident that many commuting students exist within the UK with HESA’s research being supported by research from Santander which showed that more than 22% of students still live in their family home. Of these, 66% say the cost of living is the main reason for deciding to reside within the family home. In many cases, student loans do not cover student accommodation and living costs and according to research from the National Union of Students (NUS), the weekly cost of a room in halls of residence has doubled in the past 10 years. NUS ‘Pound in Your Pocket’ research found that 58% of students regularly felt stressed about not having enough money to cover rent and maintenance costs, and the fear many students had of incurring an estimated £53,400 debt from living away from home may have been a huge reason as to why so many students decide to live at home and therefore to commute to University.
Although issues surrounding money is a huge precursor to commuting to University from home, other issues have been identified. For 27% of students in the UK, moving away from home is not an option due to their state of health, caring responsibilities, cultural practices and limited finances. Although research from NUS has identified that commuter students showed a higher level of participation as student reps, commuter students were often less engaged with students’ union activities such as clubs, societies and voting. Instead, commuter students were more interested in activities such as volunteering and course representation. This lack of engagement with student union activities involved issues with accessibility, time constraints and not knowing how to get involved within students’ union activities. In fact, over 40% of those not participating indicated an interest in becoming involved in clubs and societies and in volunteering, which suggests there is an opportunity to include these commuting students who are not fully engaging with student groups.
What did we find out?
From this research, it is evident that most people chose to come to University to further their career prospects and stayed at home to save money, for convenience, or due to prior commitments at home such as childcare, relationships and family at home. Quotes from students include, ““I chose LJMU to pursue a career in probation and to change my career” and “I love the topic and I want to work in academia so I need a PhD for that.”
These were all huge factors as to why many students’ decided to commute from home with this affecting mature students the most. All students showed a passion for studying at LJMU, especially due to the friendliness and welcoming behaviour of LJMU and LiverpoolSU staff at the open days.
It is clear that the respondents all love Liverpool, mainly for the culture, shopping, the friendliness of people, the diversity, the nightlife and the cost of living which evidences why so many people decided to stay at home and therefore to commute to University. Although commuter students clearly love Liverpool, their expectations of University as a whole were much lower than their overall satisfaction now. This may be due to the fears of missing out on the whole University experience by living at home and not living in halls.
In order to alleviate the anxiety of becoming a commuter student at LJMU, students not booked into halls could receive information, guidance and signposting to support networks in regards to being a commuter student. These students could also have a Facebook page which they could access before coming to University to allow them to meet other commuter students and realise that they are not alone. This help, guidance and a support network through social media and e-mails before coming to university could also improve how easily people make new friends at University. For many mature commuter students at LJMU, they tend to go straight home after lectures to tend to their children and their families, or work from home while studying for their PhD therefore this allows them to talk to people from anywhere they are to make it easier for the students’ who do not spend a lot of time on campus.
When asked how the respondents made friends at University, many students reported meeting people through ice breakers at the start of university, however, over 1/3 of respondents have never been to the Fresher’s Fair with many of these students missing the induction weeks and welcome weeks at University as they feel it is targeted at students from outside of the city rather than at those that already know the city of Liverpool.
It may be important to introduce ice breakers across all degree programs to help everyone to integrate together, whether the students lived in halls or commuted, however, this needs to carry on, possibly through the use of group work in the following month or two after the welcome weeks to ensure that students who are not engaging with Fresher’s and the welcome weeks still have a good chance of meeting people and making new friends. It may also be a good idea to advertise trips to Chester Zoo, Blackpool etc. to students via e-mail during the start of University to show commuters and home students that there is so much more going on with LiverpoolSU than just Liverpool based events, keeping it exciting for students from the Merseyside area.
Getting to and from the University is actually a huge issue for this group. When asked whether they had ever been late or missed class due to commuting, 53% of respondents reported yes.
Most of these issues are unavoidable, however, there are things that LJMU and LiverpoolSU may be able to implement to help commuter students with some of these issues. Lectures could begin to be pushed back to 9:30am/10:00am to aid those who commute to university and therefore hit rush hour traffic. One student mentioned that teachers have permits allowing them to exit Mount Pleasant car park after 8pm when it closes to the public.
This could be explored further and opened to commuter students’ even for a small fee so commuter students’ can access all classes without having to worry about moving the car, or not picking a module as there is nowhere to park the car at that time. The finish times also need to be adapted to help students to access these classes.
We wondered whether commuter students felt as though their existing friends who were not at University had an influence on their engagement with University life. However over 70% said that this was not the case. For those who did recognise it as an influence, it was mostly negative as they missed out on University-related social activity and making new friends.
An unfortunately high number of commuter students felt isolated, either because of their age, or because of being a commuter; deeming most people to have become good friends from their time spent in halls; making it difficult for commuter students’ to make new friends.
Post graduates, PhD students and mature students throughout this research have constantly commented on the lack of activities for their group of students reporting that societies tend to be tailored towards undergraduate students and the younger students. Many mature students interviewed hadn’t heard of the mature students’ network and were interested in joining. However, many of those who had already joined said that there wasn’t much going on, or that the events weren’t exciting enough. Better publicity of the mature students’ network with a wider variety of activities could dramatically improve the social life of post-grad and mature student’s at LJMU.
Quotes from students who have had positive experiences amongst friends whilst at University:
• “They encourage me and realise that university is my priority.”
• “They support me with what I’m doing and realise I will decline invitations because I have assignments and things like that so they are very, very supportive.”
• “As I am a bit older, most of my friends had been through university so were quite supportive and positive and would give me hints and tips.”
• “They positively influence my engagement. They are very supportive and I usually see them on the weekends so it doesn’t interfere.”
Quotes from students who have had negative experiences amongst friends whilst at University:
• “Yes because most of them live in Uni accommodation so are always doing fun things that I want to be involved in.”
• “They are in full time work with lots of money to spend so I couldn’t fully integrate with what they were doing.”
• “They distract me from engaging with University.”
• “It’s hard to split home life and university life. I feel as though I am living to separate lives at the moment as my home friends have expectations of me and so do my uni friends.”
• “I’ve got a close group of friends from home and I believe that I didn’t mix with people from university as much because I already had my friends from home.”
Much of the research in this report has been supported by various research from NUS, Independent, The Guardian, and HEA for the experiences of commuter students, for example, NUS Connect (2013) states that commuter students were often interested in other types of activities, like volunteering which was evident within the activities section of this report which showed that many of the respondents engaged and valued volunteering. NUS Connect (2013) also reported issues of accessibility, time constraints, not knowing how to get involved and unwelcoming environments as key barriers to students not participating in the students’ union which is evident across the various sections of this report, and hopefully with this research, change can be implemented to increase the lives of commuter students. While this research was primarily to investigate the issues surrounding commuter students, many issues surrounded mature and post-graduate students experiences at university which in many incidences coincided with being a commuter student at LiverpoolSU.
When looking at Platypus Postgraduate Taught Qualitative Research 2013 with LJMU, four key groups of taught postgraduates emerged, these being; Family First – Those returning to education having put their careers on hold to raise a family, The Worker – Those returning to education having worked for several years, the Subject Enthusiast – Those passionate about the subject, wanting to continue study and the Recent Grad – One who has reached a crossroads and making a decision; further study or starting a career. The sample of commuter students used for this research seemed to include all four of these categories with their main motivations being to increase their career prospects by going to University, or for a career change. This fits with research from Alterline who found that 95% of students are at university to improve their career prospects.
Alterline’s research into emerging segments; classifying LJMU students into particular groups based on a variety of factors such as their interests and values, was analysed to see whether the commuter students fit into any categories other than the aspirational ‘mouse potato’ that being a local to Liverpool who wants to easy life, enjoys TV, cares about what people think of them and came to university primarily to increase their earning potential and for the social life. Most aspirational mouse potatoes are under 20, living with parents and are more likely to be found in the Faculty of Technology and Environment. Although many of the respondents mentioned their love for Liverpool nightlife, more seemed more interested in culture, family time and developing professionally to get into the career that they want which fits the Life Changer more than the Aspirational Mouse Potato segment.
With this research and previous research looking into the university life of commuter students, and by distributing the information to the various departments within LiverpoolSU, commuter students’ should be reached to ensure that their voices are heard.
More information regarding the Commuter Student project can be sought from the Community department at LiverpoolSU by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.