A brief history of why students go away to university

The long history of students leaving their home town to go to university is beginning to erode. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

As the middle of September arrives, the annual migration of students going away to university will once again begin. In the UK, this ritual of going away to study is widely regarded as the normal university experience. This is despite the fact that in many towns and cities across the country alternative universities or other higher education institutions are available – and are often much closer to home.

In many other countries, it is much more common for students go to their nearest university, which often involves staying in the home town or city. But in England in particular, there is a strong historical precedent for going away to university.

A lot of this is based on the fact that until the 1830s, there were only two universities in England – Oxford and Cambridge. So if you wanted a university education, you had to go to these remote (to many) destinations – which developed a complex system of colleges and tutors to house and look after the undergraduates.

The city of Oxford, home to the original university experience. CBCK/Shutterstock

But through the second half of the 19th century, a great expansion of higher education made the university experience much more accessible. University College and King’s College in London were geared to students remaining at home while they studied. And through the system of external examinations, people from across the country – and around the world – were able to sit degree examinations set and validated by the University of London.

By the end of the century, the industrial and commercial cities, such as Manchester and Liverpool, pioneered a new type of civic institution that was more connected to their home towns. Local students gained access to a university experience that would benefit both themselves, and their local economy, society and culture.

A real education?

But taking Oxbridge as the model, some argued that studying for a degree should be more than just a nine-to-five existence. Concerns were raised for those students studying in their home town or city about whether the family home could provide a suitable cultural background for an undergraduate.

And so from the 1930s, there was a push to provide residential accommodation at the provincial universities – offering something more like a “proper” Oxbridge-style experience. This led to more students beginning to by-pass their nearest institution – especially after the Second World War, which broadened most people’s horizons.

The new universities of the 1960s – such as Sussex, York and Lancaster – were intended to be primarily residential, forming model academic communities of students from around the country. And the pattern of going away to university became the norm. Universities, however, were not the only form of higher education, and polytechnics and other colleges of higher education maintained a more local student base.

Home comforts

Today, there is little real need to go away for a university education. Developing high-level skills and intellectual independence through serious study and reflection does not depend on where you live. And while leaving home to live independently can help young people learn to take care of themselves and grow in self-confidence, these are not skills that are acquired simply by going away to university.

A stay-at-home mum juggling family, caring and work responsibilities, while also studying, is likely to be much more resourceful than a feckless youth whose passage through university into privileged internship and career is eased through family wealth and connections.

You can’t always get a hug from mum when you live in halls. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

In the 21st century, the emergence of mass higher education and the financial pressures placed on students, have created a much more mixed pattern. Former polytechnics continue to recruit significantly from their regional areas, while also attracting students from further afield, including overseas.

But older universities are also coming to recognise that notable numbers of students are choosing to stay at home. The reasons students choose to stay at home are varied, but it often comes down to the fact that living at home can be much cheaper, and more comfortable for new students.

Part-time work and family support networks are also very valuable, especially for more mature students. And social and cultural changes increasingly allow youngsters to enjoy the freedoms of student life – even while living with their parents.