Away from home

Some 44 years ago I became an undergraduate student at Trinity College Dublin. On my first day as a student, I took a guided tour of the institution organised by the Student Representative Council (as it was then called).

I started chatting with two other students. One of them was self-assured, came from a solid middle class background, and told me he had taken his first major decision as a student: he would join the Geography Society (which had developed a reputation for field trips that involved many things apart from geography). The other was a young woman from a working class area of Dublin, who had come to TCD despite her parents’ misgivings about its Protestant history; she would live at home so that, she told me, her parents could ‘keep an eye on her’.

I don’t remember the names of either student (if indeed we exchanged names at all), but I sometimes wonder whether and how university life changed them. I fear a little that it may not have totally evened out the social gap between them. Or maybe it did, but the chances of that would have been greater if the second of the two managed to move out of the parental home at some point during her studies.

It is almost a cliché to say that the university experience should be more than just one of studying. It has a vital social dimension, which is about much more than having fun (though that, too, is good). That social dimension can be harnessed most effectively when students move away from their parental home and mix with other students outside of formal teaching and learning. One website offers 18 reasons (a good few of them tongue-in-cheek) why living away from home during university studies is good.

Now in a recent study the Sutton Trust has found that a majority of British students live at or near their homes, but that this choice is often driven by social class, with students from state schools significantly more likely to choose to stay at home than those who have been privately educated. These patterns are also reinforced by regional considerations, with students from less prosperous regions making choices that keep them there during their studies.

If this is a problem helping to sustain social inequality, it may not be easy to find a quick solution, as the forces sustaining this pattern are financial, structural and cultural. But it is important that higher education is a social leveller and does not help to perpetuate disadvantage. The Sutton Trust makes a number of recommendations, including the provision of targeted funding and a greater effort by universities to structure learning in a way that will help students living at home to achieve greater independence. These recommendations should be taken seriously by government and higher education institutions and should lead to appropriate action.

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5 Comments on “Away from home”

  1. My brother went into the civil service in about 1972 about two years before I went to university. I told him that he’s not a socially developed as I am because he did not go to university. He begged to differ. I’m afraid I don’t buy this idea that university is “vital” for social development. It is just not true and actually quite offensive to many people.

    • I don’t buy that either, Brian, and just to be clear I didn’t say that. I was talking about how universities should aim to mitigate social disadvantage, not reinforce it. I said nothing whatsoever about a university education being ‘vital’ for anyone!

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    Interesting study, pity that having considered class and ethnicity it forgets to include investigations of mobility choices of disabled students.

  3. Vince Says:

    I can give a first hand account of how Ireland attempts to level the playing field.
    I was delighted to get a place to read Arts at UCG/NUI,Galway back in the 90s. And I can honestly say most in the university bent over backwards to aid the mature students knowing most would fly once a few things clicked( I went to the Dean of Arts thinking that a 68 on a Philosophy essay wasn’t good enough, to discover actually the way the faculty marked, it was pretty good). And while they might take a while their drive would power them through eventually. Where things fell apart was with the department of social welfare. Mature access came at that time via a grant from the EU, managed by the DSW. This fund was designed in Brussels to cover all possible costs and to facilitate accommodation and living costs. The DSW saw it’s roll as saving as much money as it could while doing its damnedest to smother the policy. They saved so much by having the mature students living much of the year in homeless hostels with the mentally unstable and intravenous drug users that the EU demanded all the cash they saved back.
    At the time I didn’t know very much about the game playing of the Dublin civil service. Ohh, Francis Ross was the labour minister at the time. But how much of the policy was his and the contorted small minded nastiness of the Irish labour party, and how much was the instinctive 1905 Tory position of the Dublin civil service I don’t know. But the end results , in Galway at least, were mitigated by the College, staff, faculty and students and the drop off rate was staunched.
    Of course the petty minded didn’t take long to obliterate the good.

    • Vince Says:

      Oh, I mentioned the mark to illustrate something only insiders would know and could and did throw people. And it’s something so taken for granted it’s not mentioned.

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