Where to study and where to live? Young people's higher education decisions in Scotland and the role of family, finance and region
This thesis is concerned with young people’s higher education (HE) decisions in Scotland, particularly how school leavers make decisions about where to study and where to live while studying. Using a mixed methods approach, it explores how these decisions are made within the context of the family, and considers the role of family background, finance and region in shaping young people’s horizons for action (Hodkinson et al., 1996) and how this serves to limit/expand HE options. These factors remain under-researched in Scotland, where free tuition has tended to frame how most people view the funding of HE and issues of fair access, despite the Scottish system being predicated on the idea of student maintenance loan debt, and policy assumptions that parents will contribute to their children’s HE costs. Statistical modelling (binary logistic regression) of Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) student records data from 2014/15 was used to predict the likelihood of Scottish-domiciled students 1) living at home and 2) attending a local university. This was complemented with 17 qualitative case studies, recruited from two Scottish secondary schools (one located in Edinburgh and the Lothians and the other in the Strathclyde region). Longitudinal semi-structured interviews (71 in total), undertaken with young people and their parents at the end of S6 and again during their second year of HE, tracked the evolution of young people’s HE decision making. Family background and region heavily influenced HEI destinations and term-time accommodation decisions at both the macro and micro levels. The statistical models found that even after controlling for personal characteristics, parental education, school factors and type of HEI, students from working class backgrounds were more likely than those from higher managerial and professional backgrounds to live at home and study locally. The effect of region was pronounced among students from Strathclyde region who behaved differently to those from Edinburgh and the Lothians, irrespective of their social class background. Students from all social class groups in Strathclyde were more likely to live at home, and study locally, than those from the same groups in Edinburgh and the Lothians. This evidence confirms the continued existence of a Strathclyde regional effect, demonstrating how strongly Scottish students’ HE destinations and accommodation decisions are shaped by where they live. These social class and regional inequalities were replicated in the case studies. All of the young people from West High lived at home and commuted to local institutions, while the East Academy students travelled considerable distances for study (just one lived at home, and two studied locally). The young people’s HE decisions were socially and culturally embedded (Hodkinson et al., 1996). The extent to which they felt financially and culturally able to move away from the parental home and how this influenced institutional decisions was bounded by students’ horizons for action, that is, their beliefs of what options were available to them. This in turn was shaped by their parents and their own habitus and dispositions. While students benefitted from living at home in terms of reduced costs, local employment options and supportive family relations, there was also evidence of students limiting their HE options by virtue of local study. The findings point to the enduring effect of family background and region in influencing young people’s HE decisions as to where to study and where to live. That social class continues to play such a defining role in these decisions directly challenges the narrative of a fair and egalitarian Scotland in which access to HE is based on the ‘ability to learn rather than the ability to pay’ (Scottish Government, 2010). Instead, these findings show how unequal access to HE remains in Scotland and how family background, region and other aspects of a young person’s context broaden and constrain horizons for action. Even in a system of free tuition, finance matters. The rhetoric of the policy focus on free tuition obscures the reality of student debt for most of Scotland’s students, whose decisions are further shaped by the nature of the student support system. Without more effective policy designed to counter inequalities, Scotland risks having a two-tiered system whereby only the children of the most affluent families feel able to leave home and attend institutions further afield.