Why there's no place like home from some students

Living with your parents is a financially sound option for a growing number of students, says Steve McCormack
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It's long been one of the essential elements of the British student experience: living away from home. The benefits of existing a hundred miles away from prepared meals, ironed clothes and freely-offered advice about when to get up in the morning are considered as valuable a part of student life as those other bits: the ones involving attending lectures and writing essays.

But it appears a declining proportion of undergraduates are choosing to cast off the home ties, embarking instead on a university course closer to home, and spending another few years sheltering under their parents' roof, and bank balance.

A survey carried out by Lloyds TSB suggests that 22 per cent of students planning to go to university this autumn will live at home, in an attempt to keep their debts down by saving on halls of residence rent.

The figure has been highlighted by the National Union of Students (NUS) as further evidence of the adverse effects of top-up tuition fees - most of which are set at £3,000 a year - becoming payable for the first time for students starting degrees this autumn.

"It is extremely worrying that such a high proportion of students are choosing to live at home as a result of fears about debt," says NUS President, Kat Fletcher.

Living at home with parents can produce substantial savings for the undergraduate student. Figures produced by the NUS every year, estimating the cost of studying for a degree, identify thousands of pounds of outgoings that could be avoided by staying at home.

The biggest figure in a lengthy list of expenses is rent, which, on average in the academic year just ending, cost British students £2,215. In London the figure was £3,085. Utility bills, food and miscellaneous household goods, all items which, to a greater or lesser extent, can be funded from the parental purse, are also not insubstantial sums. Outside London these can set the average student back £2,261, and in the capital by £2,577.

For students who have to meet all these expenses themselves, the expenditure can contribute to the accumulation of substantial debts, especially when added to the costs borne by all, namely tuition fees, books and equipment, clothes and that essential student activity: going out.

Although debts vary wildly and are affected by personal characteristics, research carried out last year by Barclays Bank estimated average debt after a three year degree to be around £14,000. However, that figure will rise sharply from this year as the vast majority of students will be borrowing much more money so that they can pay the increased tuition fees.

In this light, it is easy to see the attraction for students who choose to stay at home and thereby reduce their debt by several thousand pounds a year.

Even though going away to university is considered a luxury and an exception to the rule in many European countries, the NUS argues that a decision to remain living with parents, forced on a student by financial worries, can be damaging, on academic and social grounds.

First, the choice of course can, it's argued, be skewed to the detriment of the student by the financial consideration. Students considering only their local university might choose a course which does not really fit their aims or academic abilities.

"This might not be so serious in a big city such as Leeds," says the NUS's Vice President (Welfare) Veronica King, "but in smaller towns and cities where there's only one higher education institution, it can really limit choice in a harmful way."

Secondly, students living at home can miss out on so much of the social benefits of living in halls of residence, in close proximity to the university's facilities, and most of their co-freshers. "There will obviously be side effects as to how immersed they can get in the whole student experience, and their involvement in clubs, societies, and the student media will often be lower than those students living at university," says Mike Baxter, Nottingham University's students' union president.

Faced with evidence that more students are choosing the home option, student unions, at the local level, are increasing their efforts to make sure the off-campus students don't lose out.

At Birmingham University, the Freshers Off Campus Society is gearing up for a concerted campaign this autumn, which will try to bind in the home-based students to as much of the extra-curricular side of university life as possible. One way of doing this is to help students living close to each other, away from campus, to link up early in the term. Social events, specifically aimed at home-based students are laid on, and off-campus students have their own teams taking part in university sports competitions.

Second year student Laura Sadler, the union's home student officer, is at the heart of much of the work. "The halls experience gives you a social network which you can miss out on if you're living at home," she explains.

Catherine Skene, President of the Regional Students Association at Nottingham University, organises a one-night residential event for off-campus students in the week before freshers arrive from further flung parts of the country.

"This helps the home-based students make friends with people in the same situation early on," she says. "And later in the year we see that these friendships have lasted."

'I know some of my friends couldn't have done what I've done'

Ollie Betts, 20, from Plymouth, is two years into a four year degree course in marketing at Plymouth University. After finishing school in 2004, he chose to stay on living with his parents in the city, despite having offers from universities further afield to do similar courses. Financial considerations were key in his decision.

I was close to picking West of England University in Bristol, where some of my friends were going, but I decided to stay in Plymouth where I knew I could save a lot of money. It also meant I could continue to play rugby locally, and keep my part-time job.

Two years on, I realise I couldn't have made a better decision. When all my best mates come back from their universities, I've got a lot more money than them.

A girl I know is looking at finishing her university course this year with between £16,000 and £20,000 of debt. But I hope to come out with less than £7,000.

I know some of my friends couldn't have done what I've done, because they don't really get on with their families, but I love my family to bits. Being a 20-year-old, it can be a bit annoying having to keep to house rules, but it's not a big drawback.

And living outside the immediate university area doesn't matter, because I'm only a 25-minute walk away, or five minutes on the bus, so I don't miss out.

I'm definitely staying at home for my third year, which is a placement year out, but I might move out for the fourth year when I'm older and might have a bit more money.