Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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Walking across the common to the station the other day, I noticed a couple of girls in front of me lugging a selection of baggage: suitcases-on-wheels, holdalls and rucksacks. Off on holiday, I thought, until a stray reference to "freshers' week" made me realise they were off to university.

Looking at the two pairs of bare legs striding ahead of me, clad only in thin cotton pedal pushers and pink Birkenstocks, I hoped for their sakes that the destination was Exeter, in balmy Devon, rather than Edinburgh, where a chill east wind blows straight in off the North Sea for most of the year.

As an Edinburgh alumna, I'm only too familiar with the climate there. The only time I can ever recall a heatwave was during exam week. However, it would never have occurred to me to go to Exeter, because I went to school in Scotland and Scots tend to go to university a bit closer to home.

Those were the days if you were at university. Come the beginning of October, the whole undergraduate population was on the move, thanks to student railcards. It never occurred to us to ask our parents to drive the length of the country to drop off our duvets and record collections. Instead, we lugged trunks that looked like something from an Enid Blyton boarding school story, smiling sweetly at British Rail guards in the slim hope that they'd help load the bloody things on to the train.

Most of us had grants burning a hole in our Afghan coat pockets. All of us, certainly in Scotland, had our fees paid by the local education authority. And as we shuttled about the country - Manchester to Newcastle, Aberdeen to Edinburgh, Birmingham to Cardiff - and negotiated changing trains at Crewe or Carlisle or Glasgow, it felt as if we were setting off on life's first great adventure.

Today's undergraduates do not have the same financial freedom. Some of them may already be in debt thanks to the now obligatory gap year. So is it financially sensible - not to mention ecologically sound - to journey to the other end of the UK to study if you can find the course you want closer to home?

It's very tempting, especially if you live in London where you can find just about any course under the sun and many of the country's best colleges, to encourage one's offspring to stay at home to study. There's no forking out for accommodation or fares, no embarrassment when your cheque to your daughter's landlord bounces (as happened to a friend of mine), no £17,000 debt mountain when they graduate. So why do we take it for granted that going to university will involve travelling hundreds of miles? Is living away from home necessary to a teenager's development, or is it a middle-class luxury?

Lloyds TSB estimates that more than one in five students will be living at home this autumn, thanks to the additional financial burden of top-up tuition fees, and the National Union of Students is less than happy about this state of affairs.

They point out that students who want to live at home may end up compromising on their choice of course or college. Rather than going to the leading university in their chosen field, for example, they may opt for a slightly different course at their local university. Then there's the social side. If you have to catch the bus or train home, it's easy to feel isolated from student activities such as societies, parties or even politics.

Some university student unions are starting to address this problem, organising special events for commuter, or off-campus, students. Nottingham University hosts a one-night residential event for off-campus students before the rest of the freshers arrive, so that they have a chance to get to know people in the same situation.

And yet, and yet. Out of sheer nostalgia, I checked out a couple of student forums on the internet to see what's obsessing today's Edinburgh freshers. To my horror, I saw a posting from one student from the South asking if it was safe for Asians to study in Scotland. He was worried about being the target of racist abuse. It seems to me that the more we all move around and get to know each other, the better for everyone.