Home and away

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THE next few weeks will see the annual pilgrimage of new students leaving home and heading for university. For some, course choices or geography offer no option other than to leave home and find halls of residence or rented accommodation. Equally, financial constraints can make courses closer to home suddenly seem more attractive, although actively encouraging your student offspring to stay at home is still considered rather suspect.

There is a widespread assumption that it is best all round to encourage them to move on and be independent, but for many students staying on in the family home for another year or two can be hugely beneficial.

The positives in moving out are regularly catalogued, from being forced to make friends to learning to cook, while staying at home has tended to get more negative press, conjuring up images of lonely students trudging back to the suburbs, where parents are struggling to cope with the concept of them being adults and curtailing their freedom.

Getting it right clearly comes down to the individuals involved, and while spending the first year of studentdom in halls of residence can be great fun and introduce many new and exciting aspects to life, it can also be stressful, lonely, and difficult to get the balance right in working and socialising.

The obvious positives in living at home are the creature comforts provided in terms of food, laundry, bills being paid for you, less debt and the chance to concentrate on studying rather than being overwhelmed by domestic chores.

"But there are other, less tangible benefits, such as cementing ties with younger siblings, developing a new and adult relationship with parents and being given the chance to take independent steps in your own time and in stages, rather than being plunged into it.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, maintains that there are no hard and fast rules. "It all comes down to the way the relationships are handled," he says.

"Being physically distant from a child does not guarantee that you will stop smothering them, while living with your parents does not mean you won't get independence.

"The truth is that since the 1980s more students have chosen to stay at home for financial reasons. Students in the 1970s were very different – we would rather have lived in a hole with five other people, sharing a bathroom and an outside toilet, than stay at home with our parents.

"We saw it as valuing our freedom and autonomy, but the real issue is how you engage with new experiences and who makes the decisions involved. Independent thought is as much a possibility when you're living at home, but you might have to make more of a stand for it."

And Glasgow University psychology professor Paddy O'Donnell points out that while moving away encourages independence and self- reliance, this can have a negative effect on some students, resulting in them being stressed and isolated.

"There's a lot more going on than just having a sociable time," he says. "Add academic competition, organising life and workload and possibly new housing difficulties and you can see why being at home could be very attractive, especially if you are allowed as much freedom and independence as you want.

"Younger siblings can feel a strong sense of loss when older children move out, though that can create space for them to get more attention.

"Staying at home can have enormous benefits all round but they should be planned for, rather than assumed. The status quo changes enormously and for it to succeed you have to plan what's going to happen next, with respect on both sides.

"Parents might prefer the situation where what their student children are doing is safely hidden from view because they're living elsewhere," Prof O'Donnell says. "Whereas if they're at home, you have to think about things like what time they'll be in, in what state of intoxication and at what point that is going to impact negatively on everyone else."

'Transport is the big issue'

CALUM MacFadyen is in his second year of a Scandinavian studies and philosophy degree, also at Edinburgh University, and lives in the family home in Tranent, East Lothian. Travel is part of his daily life, whether he is studying or socialising.

At 28, he is slightly older than the average student, but as he points out, his previous experience of living at home while studying has had few negatives.

"It's easy to generalise about being more integrated and involved if you're in halls, but you have to look at individual needs to get a wider picture," he says. "Transport in the evenings is the big issue … but I do have some friends with floors to spare should I want to stay in the city overnight.

"I originally studied music in Edinburgh and I wanted to stay at home because I knew it wouldn't be easy for me – I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was very young and it impacted on my health for years."

He then moved to Aberdeen to continue his studies. "Things like cooking weren't an issue, as my mum is a cook with her own catering business, so she made sure my brother and I could look after ourselves, but I found budgeting a big problem. I gave up studying for a while, but decided to go back and this time it's working well for me.

"My mum and step-dad give me total independence, which is obviously a factor in how comfortable you feel at home and I now also work part-time for mum and she's a good enough boss!

"In third year I'll be going to Denmark and I honestly could not afford to do that if I weren't living at home just now and saving every penny I can.

"The strangest thing is that I stayed at home for my first year after leaving school, then studied and worked elsewhere, including abroad, and now I'm back (at home] and it's as easy as first time round.

"I do think it should be a matter of choice, however, and that certainly isn't the case for a lot of students when it comes to finance. The student loan should be considerably higher and the same for everyone, irrespective of whether they're studying in their home town.

"Though we've had the odd moment, such as me forgetting my keys and getting home at 4am, I'm here because I want to be and my parents are happy to have me, and that's why it works so well."

'I wanted to experience everything'

THOMAS Graham from Manchester has just finished his third year of a BSc in artificial intelligence at Edinburgh University and is currently taking a "gap year" after being elected president of the Students' Association. He also took a gap year before beginning his studies, during which he worked for a research company in Salisbury.

He deliberately chose not to study in his home city. "There was never any question of me going to Manchester University," he says firmly. "I believe that transport problems limit independence for many students staying at home, but that wasn't an issue for me, as my parents live two bus stops away from the halls of residence, but I wanted my university experience to include everything on offer."

He fervently believes that all students should have the choice in terms of finance as to whether or not they move away from home to go to university and is campaigning for the student loan system to be changed to reflect that.

"(The student loan] should be a minimum of 7,000 a year available to all students and giving them more choice about where they want to study," he says. "When I did my first gap year that was an eye-opening experience, with none of the induction element you get in student life.

"The company I was working with did try to match you with similar people and I was lucky in that I got on with the three I shared a flat with. When I came to Edinburgh the following year I don't think I got the best out of Pollok Halls because my previous experience made them seem quite restrictive, but they do provide a great supported community for new students.

"In the Students' Association we do a lot to make sure that the students who live at home have access to as much as those in halls but it is a completely different experience, especially when transport issues limit their involvement."

Now in a centrally located, privately rented flat, he is able to be as involved with university activities as he wants at any time and feels this is an important part of the university experience.

When he still lived at home he got on well with his parents and younger sister, and says family ties played no part in his decision to move out: "I don't think we were particularly close or otherwise, but my family situation had nothing to do with where I studied. I didn't want to be in Manchester because that was not the university experience I visualised for myself."