Go Higher: Home or away? You decide

The temptation of flying the nest to study is set against the financial appeal of basing yourself at home, says Anne McHardy
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The Independent Online

Lauren Muncey and her brother, Nick, offer a useful comparison of styles of university living. Lauren, 19 and starting her final year reading history at Swansea, enjoys living away. Nick, 22, who is at Southampton Solent and also starting his final year, equally thinks he benefits from commuting from home.

The traditional allure of fleeing the family nest to the excitement of university remains strong. But with the Government considering financial incentives to encourage undergraduates to study from home, and with the current financial climate making student debt ever more worrying, local universities can be attractive.

The Munceys' home is in Basingstoke, where Lauren and Nick went to school. Both chose their university predominantly because of the course, but Nick deliberately went looking within commuting distance, while Lauren, just as deliberately, cast her net wider.

She bubbles with enthusiasm: "I love the independence. Swansea is not a huge university. The beach is over the road. The union bars are good and cheap," she says.

She now lives in a private student house. "I lived in a halls of residence in the first year. Half of the halls are on campus and there is a student village, which is really nice – all self-catering. It has got a good atmosphere, and there is a shuttle-bus to university."

Despite the debt, she has no regrets. "I think if you stay at home, it is harder to make a wide group of friends."

Her brother is totally different. "He wouldn't have gone to university if he had had to move out," she says.

Nick agrees: "Lots of people can't wait to move. For me, that just wasn't there. Family is very important to me, and the money saved by commuting has been a lot. I will definitely leave university with smaller debt.

"On the whole, the travelling hasn't been bad. It's quite nice to get the time to read on the train. I didn't get involved with any clubs, but don't feel as though I missed out."

Darren Debock has tested home and away. He graduated from the University of Hertfordshire, close to his Bedfordshire home, and then did a postgrad year at law school in Birmingham. He began his undergraduate career at De Montfort University, in Leicester and, at first, loved the excitement. But after six months he was finding it impossible to study following a violent attack on a friend. He moved home and applied to Hertfordshire.

"It was interfering with my study," he says. "When I went to Leicester, I was 18 and being away was the best thing ever." But the reality was that home proved, at that stage, better. For his postgrad year, however, he enjoyed life in a student house and, with greater maturity, was able to study.

He has a brother and sister also studying from home but, he says, their decision was not influenced by their parents. "They left the choice to us."

The National Union of Students stresses that the final choice must be the student's own. There are important considerations, not least how big a community you want and what level of creature comforts you need. Increasingly, halls offer broadband access and some en-suite accommodation. The broadband is essential, as contact with tutors all tends to be online.

"We would encourage all students to be talking to friends and family," says Ben Whittaker, NUS vice-president for welfare. "While we appreciate that parents want to be involved, ultimately it should always be down to the student. This is an important decision that they have to feel comfortable with when they get to university."

Most first-years live in university accommodation, which has the benefit of welfare services on site. Universities guarantee accommodation to first-years who apply before their deadlines. But, particularly in the larger cities accommodation is limited.

The other problem is that often halls, particularly at the oldest institutions, such as Kings' College London with part of its campus on the Strand, have residences a considerable distance from lectures – anything up to a 45-minute commute.

The growing number of students has put pressure on spaces, creating a gap partly filled by a growing, although still small, number of private halls – the best, often run in partnership with a university. The biggest private providers, companies such as Liberty Living and Unite, often have partnerships with several universities.

The NUS stresses, in particular for freshers, that if you decide to go private it is sensible to consider a provider in partnership with the university. It adds that it is important to check that any landlord is bona fide. Each university's students' union will have lists of accredited landlords, and will know of problematic ones. The NUS office at your university is the best place for advice.

The NUS points out the benefit, particularly for those leaving home for the first time, of the welfare support that all universities provide. It is flexible, there day and night, and experienced. In universities' own halls some postgraduate students are provided with accommodation. The welfare network helps sort out what are, for the universities, routine difficulties.

Private halls tend to offer a higher standard of creature comforts. They generally have daytime office staff for accommodation problems and good security, but they are running to catch up on welfare. Some now provide accommodation for older students. Unite this year donated beds to Uniaid, a charity that provides financial back-up.

Some private developers have resisted welfare, but are gradually offering space for the NUS. Private providers also tend to seek longer leases: 50 weeks rather than the 40 of the academic year.

Student rooms all tend to offer a basic style. New ones often have eco-friendly features, but few are as avant-garde as Lancaster University's eco halls. So far Lancaster, where the designs win prizes, is way ahead of the pack, using sustainable materials as well as eco-designs.

Accommodation Options: 'Avoid any private halls that are not fully accredited'

Halls of residence

Often, particularly on campus universities, these are close to lecture halls and provide good social meetings points. If they are distant, the university will often provide transport. Generally, they have a good welfare network, with more mature students living in to offer advice. Some of the accommodation is basic but that balances with the better social access. Generally accommodation is arranged in flats for from five to nine people.

Private halls of residence

Increasingly private developers or providers are taking over or building new halls. Avoid any that are not fully accredited, and watch out for contract length. These tend to offer greater comfort, ensuite for instance, but may lack access to social and welfare networks. Some private halls ask for a year's rent in advance.

Private houses

These are mostly rented by second and third-year students. Contracts and safely installations should be checked, and those asking for an advance year's rent avoided. The union will have lists of accredited landlords, advice about contracts, and knowledge of local agencies that can check the safety of electrical and gas fittings and ventilation. The NUS website (www.nus.org.uk) offers advice.

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