Ben HaywardJuly 8th
2019

The prohibitive cost of the UK’s trains is having a major influence on which universities young people are applying to attend.

From applying ‘blind’ to simply ruling out certain universities based on their geographical location, students up and down the country feel that the cost of travel is prohibiting them from access to all of the UK’s universities.

"It's important to talk about the cost of going to open days,” Rachel, a sixth-former from Plymouth, who is looking at university choices, tells the BBC.

"Not everyone can afford to go out of their area. Train tickets are expensive and there's most likely accommodation as well."

With thousands of young people and their families currently travelling the country viewing potential universities, the cost of train travel - which can often be as much as £200-£300 - seems to have escaped recognition even though it might be directly limiting the choices of disadvantaged students.

Although the events themselves are free, Rachel says the travel costs mean she has effectively ruled out universities in the North of England.

"I wouldn't want to apply to a city I hadn't been to before, in case I'd regret it," she says.

Anne-Marie Canning, director of social mobility at King's College London, says this is a much bigger barrier than has been recognised.

Ms Canning, who has been working with disadvantaged families, told the BBC: "We invited parents to talk about reasons for people not going to university.”

She said she had expected people's responses to be about tuition fees and student finance and whether their children would achieve the required grades.

However that wasn’t what people brought up: “The number one problem was, 'I know I can't take them to an open day. I can't afford those train tickets,'" said Ms Canning.

"It's a major barrier, particularly for families where going to university is already unfamiliar territory."

Prospective students aren’t obligated to attend open days, however many parents see it as an important step before committing to such a large financial outlay.

The Villiers Park trust is a social mobility charity that works with high ability youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds. The charity's programme director, Deborah Richardson, says the cost of getting to open days is directly limiting students’ choice. 

She said: “It is a major factor in what students are choosing to do and which universities they are choosing to go to. It is unfair. We all know rail fares are phenomenal in this country, particularly if they're choosing to go at the last minute. Planning an open day in advance isn't always easy."

According to Ms Richardson some Independent schools will put on a minibus to take 10 or 15 people to Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, Newcastle or wherever but many state schools can’t afford it. 

And when thousands of families are descending on a university town at the same time, the trains are not going to be cheap.

However, an increasing number of universities are now recognising the cost of travel as a challenge, with some now offering means-tested bursaries to help individuals attend their open days. 

The University of East Anglia has had 94 applications for help from individuals and 28 schools this year and the University of Sheffield now provides some free overnight accommodation for open days.

Durham offers up to £100 towards travel costs for certain groups of potential applicants, including those who have been in care, at Oxford, several individual colleges offer support, including Keble, Magdalen and Merton.

Anne-Marie Canning says her university, King's College London, offers help with travel costs, but admits there needs to be a much more joined-up approach and careful consideration of the links between transport and access to education.

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