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Are halls the hub of university life?

university halls

More students are now living at home and travelling in to uni for lectures, says a report. It might make financial sense, but aren’t those students losing out on the overall university experience?

Latest figures from Hesa suggest that at some universities over half of undergraduates are ‘commuter students’. In other words, they are living at home and travelling in for lectures.

Unsurprisingly, the main motivation to stay at home is financial, with the price of halls eating up students’ budgets (especially since maintenance grants were scrapped a few years ago).

What do students gain from living at uni?

Personally, moving away from home and living with a bunch of people from completely different backgrounds was the most rewarding part of university. Sure, I enjoyed my course and got my degree, which set me on the way in my career; but it was the life experience of living in halls (and later a house share) that I cherish most.

When someone asks me about my uni days, I don’t really think about a particular author I studied, or the lectures I attended. Instead, I think about microwave fires, ‘ketchup wars’ and in-depth conversations (over a lot of vodka), which rolled into the small hours – all of which I would probably have missed out on if I’d stayed at home.

To this day, some of my closest friends are those I met and bonded with while living in halls. While I remember being anxious to live with strangers before moving (Only Child Syndrome, guilty), it was probably the best thing that could have happened to help me make friends.

We were thrown together and left to it. It was interesting how relationships developed, with some of the closest friendships in halls taking a couple of months to bloom. These were discovered, not as a result of a mutual taste in bands, but after initial differences, resolutions and deeper conversations.

Do commuter students get the full experience?

I know I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to live and study away from home. I’m sure I would have made commuting to classes work if I didn’t have the choice, but I feel like I would have had one foot still in my old life at home had I done that.

Would it have even felt like university, or simply an extension of college (only without my friends, who would have gone off to university anyway)?

Granted, a lot of these benefits have nothing to do with my course and what I achieved academically. They haven’t necessarily shaped my career prospects either (although I would argue that my social skills transformed at uni as a result of living in halls with strangers, which has contributed towards my confidence and ability to work with others).

The benefits of living at home…

It would be nice to think that those days in bed watching The Office with my flatmates could have been used more productively (ie. internships, work experience, volunteering) if I’d lived at home.

But then, I would have still had to travel to and from classes multiple times a week, which would have been another stress. I’m doing that now anyway as a young professional (and will likely be doing so for the foreseeable future); so why bear the agony of cancelled trains and armrest politics earlier than I needed to?

Perhaps, with no one around, I would have spent more time on my uni work? But then, I would have still had distractions like Sky TV (which, ironically, I didn’t have at uni).

Do you think living away from home is a key part of ‘The University Experience’? If you went away to university, what are your memories of halls – did you meet your best friends, or even your partner, there? Perhaps you were a commuter student – if so, do you think you missed out at all?


I liked with my parents when I was a student. I had listed six universities on my application form and one of those was close to my parents’ home. Five of the universities offered me a place but only two invited me to have a look round, including the local one. I could see advantages in going away and others in staying at home. In these days my asthma was not properly controlled and my parents had been good at organising emergency admission to hospital when necessary, so I decided to live with my parents but possibly move out after the first year. I opted for the easy life and was fed if I turned up at the right time, my washing was done for me, there was a garage to park my motorcycle and I had the use of my father’s car in the evenings if he was not using it. I helped my parents too, of course.

I never did move out and although I did make good friends I did not get involved much with the social scene. For a young man, this seemed to centre on drinking lots of ghastly keg beer and loud music, and playing sports. Sport was out of the question for me for health reasons. I saved my money and could afford to buy all the books I needed.

From my subsequent experience as a university lecturer and having contact with many students, I do believe that moving out of the parental home is probably the best option because it is more challenging and confidence building, but some students find it difficult to focus on their studies.


In principle, you can study (and pass) a course working anywhere, including by “distance learning”.

But, most of the fun things I remember from uni were not work related – and came about through social interactions in college or via participation in clubs and societies.

As an aside, one of the MSc modules I sometimes mentor can be done either by attendance or by distance learning. However, whilst any students who do not attend the course may save money, they may also miss out on the learning – unless they’re lucky and get a good local mentor.


University used to be the first time that the young adult left home and began to learn how to cope without parents on hand at all times. It was a place where they could make mistakes and, if not too serious, could use them in later life as “experience” to fall back on. Often it was the time when partnerships were formed. Social and interest skills were as much part of the learning curve as the lectures and study. I don’t know if this is as true today, since tuition fees have blighted the lives of those who seek academic study. Living at home drops the debt significantly. I would hope that being a university student still means that the campus -resident or not – offers the social opportunities for leisure learning. What is missing is the weekend groups, and those gatherings where bed is the only end and not a need to get home for supper.


Living at home is certainly a good way of keeping out of debt, but I’m not sure it is a good reason.

In order to avoid or minimise debt, many students do paid work. Fine if it’s during the vacations but many are working during semesters. At its worst, some students miss lectures because some greedy employer has given them the option of turn up or lose your job. As a lecturer I’ve had students ask me to contact their employer to explain that they need to attend lectures. I did not do that but I hope I gave them the confidence to deal with the situation. Working also cuts down the time for students have to work together – one of the great advantages over distance learning – and impacts on social life.

I would like to see a return to proper students’ grants. This could be funded if university places were available only to those who can demonstrate the motivation and ability to make the best of the taxpayers’ money used to fund grants.

I am certainly not opposed to students working during the vacation and some weekends because it helps develop confidence and prepares them for working life.


Vynor has said that “University used to be the first time that the young adult left home and began to learn how to cope without parents on hand at all times”. But for many of us growing up in the post-war decades National Service [compulsory military training] was the normal expectation, and I rather looked forward to it. Then the government cancelled it and ran it down so fast that whole intakes were dismissed before they had started. Luckily, there were plenty of employment opportunities and there were still service careers available for those willing to sign up for a five- or ten-year term – the UK still had extensive military establishments all round the world so they needed to recruit large numbers of personnel although they wanted volunteers, not pressed men. While all this was going on the universities were still in largely the same state that they had been in during the pre-war years, the places were very strictly rationed, the school leaving age for most was sixteen, and going to university was not a realistic option for most young people.

Fortunately, a big expansion did take place in the 1960’s with many new universities opening and older ones enlarging, so indeed a much more liberal form of independence became possible and I think this was genuinely life-changing for that generation. National Service had merely replaced mother and father with corporals and sergeants; drills and rituals left little opportunity for personal responsibility even though for many it was a form of character development – but not necessarily of the best kind. University life was a step-change in personal development.

I think university life in the late sixties through to the 1990’s was probably as good as it has ever been. The financial pressures were not there, there was an academic quality and rigour, coupled with outreaches into advanced technology, medicine, physics and chemistry, that created [in my opinion] a staggering level of intelligence, thought development, creativity both in the learning experience and through extra-mural activity, and social, cultural and political enrichment the like of which the country might never see again. There were many criticisms of its male bias, the elitism that pervaded higher education, and the detachment from real life. The response was to develop polytechnics where most students could live at home. Then over time they converted into degree-awarding universities either on their own or through amalgamations but these new institutions had a much smaller supply of halls of residence than the older universities, especially those located in urban environments, and I think that was a serious flaw as they were perceived as second-rate.

I think unquestionably the opportunity that living-in, at least for the first year or two, gives to young people to break away from their childhood and from their parents’ influences, and also to be distanced from their siblings and former schoolmates, makes for a much better entry into the adult world. Unfortunately, I don’t think things have improved much for those who can’t get into university, however, and who feel under-privileged, under-regarded, and under-respected. No one seems to be cogitating on their concerns, or agonising over how they will cope, since the focus remains – as ever – on those who already have the best prospects. Not a criticism, just an observation.

Sarah Stevens says:
24 February 2018

Maybe if university accommodation charged for when students need the it instead of most of the year more would be able to afford it. Why should they pay from August until July when they are there October to May. Profiteering.


This is quite common, Sarah. During the long vacation, student accommodation can be used to house those attending conferences and other events. Where universities are in tourist destinations, holidaymakers can book accommodation. Students doing research degrees need accommodation throughout the year are unaffected, though they may be asked to move to allow redecoration or for other reasons. Sometimes undergraduates wish to stay in their accommodation during the summer, but would be expected to pay. I am not aware of profiteering.

Where students share a house in the private sector they may have to pay for the full year, because that was part of their contract. They may be able to negotiate shorter lets but it’s not something I know about.


I would expect that for private landlord-provided lets the required income is annualised with rents charged weekly to ensure (a) that the owner gets the required return on their investment, and (b) that the student has a retention on the accommodation in order to secure their occupation in the following semester.


I lived at home during my higher education, the only experience I’ve had of halls of residence was during OU summer schools and I can’t say it was generally an enjoyable experience. Tiny rooms, rock hard beds; noisy. At Reading when we had an afternoon off I drove home so I could at least get one night’s sleep, at Stirling I was allocated a room right above a laundry which had a ventilation fan running 24 hours a day.

How anybody could endure such conditions for weeks on end and study I’ve no idea. I think you’d have to be desperate.


Years ago I attended a lot of conferences around the country staying in halls of residence and have to agree with you that conditions in many were not very conducive, and the older i got the worse it seemed. I think the thing I disliked most was the lack of self-containment and having to wander around looking for the ablution block and the toilets. There were some good examples, however, that I would prefer to a stay in one of the popular city-centre budget inns or lodges today.


I guess there’s good and bad in uni residences.

At King’s Cambridge, in his final year, my brother had a nice suite of rooms in Bodley’s Court, with nice lawns down to the river Cam. All of the other college rooms seem perfectly fine. The more modern rooms in the Keynes Building were set out with private facilities, like hotel rooms.

I think I stayed in similarly adequate rooms at Strathclyde Uni, when at a conference there in 2011.

For family holidays, I have also stayed in uni flats at Carlisle and Cork – both were fine as holiday flats.