Student studying in roompixabay/Nino Souza Nino

I’m sure everyone tried to run away from home at least once as a child. My attempt was aged eight, scootering down to the local church and sitting on the bench in the front garden. The art of childhood escape was waiting just long enough to cause enough panic to your parents to prove that the injustice you were protesting was serious, but not too long that you were at risk of being actually lost. I played it safe, caused no panic and wheeled myself home once I was bored, only to realise that my parents had hardly noticed my absence.

As you grow up, the prospect of university becomes the far more practical escape route. You can get really far away and evoke pride rather than panic for your parents. If you decide university is for you, one click in August on the UCAS login page reveals where in the country you have landed, and how difficult it will be to convince your parents to help move you in…

“For too many, the choice becomes study from home or don’t go”

However, today, the importance of university as a route out of the familiar is neglected as students are financially forced to pick universities closer to home due to the student housing crisis.

The 2023 cohort of incoming freshers is record-breaking. According to research from the Sutton Trust, 33% of 18-year-olds starting university are considering living at home. Why? Some had caring responsibilities, others simply wanted to live close to existing support networks and some had health reasons. For these students, living at home while attending university is the only option. However, the reason most students gave was not personal preference but financial. As Keir Starmer recently highlighted in an interview to LBC, moving away to university is becoming increasingly unaffordable.

The student housing crisis is pushing the cost of rent for students to newly extortionate levels. Student rent prices are rising significantly faster than average housing prices. More than 30% of students live on less than £50 after rent and bills per month. The NUS estimates that a third of all student accommodation costs more than the average maintenance loan. The cost of living crisis has only tightened the financial wiggle room for students, but accommodation costs remain the overwhelming expense for most students. These climbing costs are removing autonomy from those sixth formers wanting to study at university, as most are far less generous in financial aid available than Cambridge.

“Physically moving to university allows students to unlock one of the most valuable parts of their higher education experience”

Therein lies the tragedy. The financial constraints that force students to remain living at home denies them the full range of personal benefits that an undergraduate degree offers. Ultimately, the degree that students who study from home leave with is no less valuable, but their experience may be. They miss the purgatory that university offers for self-development before adulthood, for which being away from everything familiar is a central ingredient.

Other European countries such as France have a different recipe. Staying at home for uni is completely the norm for the French, leading to a different higher education culture. But in the UK, the move into grotty halls with a load of strangers, and later into private housing with a crowd of your choosing, is a coming-of-age rite of passage. Without the proper financial support to allow students to secure affordable accommodation, our higher education system is increasingly creating a two-tiered university experience. Those who can afford to move away and reap the massive benefits of moving away, and those who cannot.

I can’t make a personal claim to have left my hometown far behind. Growing up in a village south of Cambridge, I now eat, sleep, study and repeat less than 10 minutes from my sixth form. I’m not unique: 270 students from schools with the CB postcode made an application to Cambridge University this year, and students from the South East make up the regional plurality of students.


Mountain View

Maybe the MAB hasn’t been all that bad

However, Cambridge sits in a bubble away from this debate. This privilege stems from two of the university’s unique qualities. Firstly, it has close to a monopoly on land ownership in the city centre. As a result, rent is relatively controlled with Varsity’s 2023 investigation illustrating that an average annual Cambridge rent is £5,400 per year. It ain’t cheap – Cambridge students still struggle, especially due to disparities between colleges, but it pales in comparison to private, city rentals with 11 or 12-month leases. Secondly, it requires students to live onsite during term time. For people in my position, there is no question of saving costs by living at home. Students are required to reside in Cambridge accommodation for at least 59 nights in Michaelmas and Lent Terms, and 52 in Easter Term or *supposedly* they will be unable to graduate. This university offers no middle ground to the incoming undergraduates. It’s the full live-in experience or nothing.

As demonstrated by students like me, it is not so much about distance as it is removal from home comforts. The student funding model does not consider this value, and the housing crisis is increasingly making this full university experience a privilege rather than the expectation.