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Governance News: New HEPI report: Somewhere to live

Issued: 12 November 2019

A new report traces the historical development of the residential model of British higher education and questions the continuing benefits of the model. The report makes a number of recommendations for universities. It will be of interest to Governors and governing bodies considering the provision of accommodation and support for students at their institution.

The report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, and authored by Professor William Whyte questions the prevailing residential model of British Higher Education. In the report titled, Somewhere to live, Whyte traces the historical development of the residential model of higher education and suggests that there is “no clear sense of what it is for”.

Whyte notes the residential model is a distinctive feature of British Higher Education. While similar approaches are found in other countries, including the United States, in many European countries the pattern is very different with more students living at home or commuting weekly.

In the report, Whyte shows that while institutions may initially have been created to serve local students, over time they have also acquired residential accommodation. Today for example, the majority of students at Redbrick universities and the former polytechnics are residential.

Taking the last few decades the proportion nationally of residential (80%) and commuting (20%) students has remained broadly constant, although this balance naturally varies according to the individual institution. Evidence suggests that commuting students are disadvantaged and achieve poorer outcomes than students who are residential. In addition, the need for residential accommodation for international students is clear.

The national growth of student numbers has led to the influx of private finance to provide dedicated student accommodation. There also been by a general rise in the quality of provision, but this has been mirrored by its cost. The costs of student accommodation are now significant and potentially places some groups at a social disadvantage. Nevertheless, to date the market has proven to be largely price inelastic.

Although students may gain a “sense of freedom” when moving away from home, Whyte suggests “it is difficult to say what migrating from home is intended to achieve – especially given the relatively short distances most students actually travel.”

Whyte also notes that alongside continuing concerns about mental health, the growth in the student numbers and the nature of student halls has raised issues about how to support students who may find it difficult to integrate with their peers. He also draws attention to the potential tensions between a student community and local inhabitants as a result of the sheer scale of student accommodation, noting the risk of similar tensions to those commonly found in university towns in previous historical periods.

In summary, Whyte believes “we need a more general, national discussion about what we think we are achieving when students leave home for university.”


The author of the report makes six recommendations:

  1. Universities should provide better information to prospective students about accommodation.
  2. Universities should review how they support their students: both those who live on campus and those who do not.
  3. The design of accommodation should be reviewed by universities and other providers alike.
  4. Both government and accommodation providers need to address an increasingly unsustainable rise in rents.
  5. Universities should review how their accommodation policies affect the local community and how their resources can be shared.
  6. Above all, there needs to be a thorough debate about the nature and purposes of residential higher education.


The provision of student accommodation and support for both residential and commuting students are important aspects of student welfare, and potentially play a central role in helping students gain the maximum benefits from their university experience. It is an area that governors and governing bodies may wish to give further attention.

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