In a typical week, a student who commutes will bounce from home to university and back again umpteen times. Each place has its own stressors: exams, deadlines and high expectations loom on campus, while care duties and family stress can dominate at home. Each is an escape, of sorts, from the other, but where can students retreat to when they need a break from both? The student union is a great spot for socialising, but today’s students are seeking somewhere a little more subdued and a lot more flexible; somewhere that accommodates a new style of learning and a new generation of commuters.

According to the Sutton Trust, a quarter of today’s students live at home and commute to study at university. In major cities the proportion is higher and at some universities, such as City, University of London and Newman University, commuter students are in the majority.

There are benefits to living at home while studying such as saving money, retaining an existing job and having a built-in support network, however a report on commuter students by The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found that they tend to obtain poorer results and feel less engaged and satisfied with their university experience.

Lectures, seminars, one-to-one tutorials, workshops; there are plenty of ways to learn at university, each with its own significant value to students. But the time away from those more formal studies is equally as crucial for a fulfilling, successful educational experience. The ‘in-between’ moments when people can relax, recharge and connect with others are, according to the Gensler Experience Index, “when people are most open to discovery and new experiences”. And at universities, a place where discovery and new experiences are the name of the game, in-between moments couldn’t be more valuable, particularly for those who commute.

Photograph: Patrick Chin

A study on flexible spaces, published in the Journal of Facilities Management, found that “active learning more often occurs away from the classroom, often in informal, ad hoc spaces.” By interviewing a new cohort of students over the course of 12 months, the study discovered that increasingly, students are looking for flexible spaces “that can adapt to both individual and collaborative work”, yet universities often aren’t providing them.

University campuses tend to be divided between hushed lecture theatres, productive study rooms and studios, silent libraries, and noisy canteens, so the search for a flexible space in which to truly decompress can feel impossible for students. This gap in expectation, need and facilities is where the importance of the ‘third space’ really shines. Coined by sociologist Roy Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place, the third space is, simply, a place away from the home (the first space) and work (the second space).

In life outside of university, the third space might manifest as a barber shop or a book club. At university, the third space could be communal seating areas, sleep pods, co-working desks, self-serve kitchens or meditation rooms.

For students who live in halls or accommodation near campus, spaces of this type might already be available. Maybe they have access to a communal lounge in a shared house, or a shared workspace within an accommodation building. Students who commute, however, just don’t have those spaces to retreat to.

3DEN at Hudson Yards, New York
Photograph courtesy of 3DEN

Not only are the in-between moments which third spaces engender key for enhancing education but being given the space to unplug also results in individuals reporting having had a better experience. So, the direct link between the difficulties commuter students face – such as low engagement and satisfaction – and the advantages third spaces could provide for them is plain to see. HEPI concluded by recommending that campuses incorporate facilities which would benefit commuter students, such as “quiet study spaces, common rooms and communal kitchen facilities”, all great examples of functional third spaces.

While third spaces are particularly beneficial for commuter students, they’re also important for underrepresented groups (which, incidentally, commuter students often belong to). KerryAnn O’Meara, a professor of higher education, wrote for Inside Higher Ed that, “In-between spaces, especially in higher education settings, allow for women and underrepresented minority graduate students and faculty members to find themselves within a critical mass, to let their full selves show, to identify role models and peer collaborators, to gain the skills and perspectives needed to navigate oppressive spaces – and, more generally, to breathe.”

But with the idea of the third space still developing within education environments, where can we look for successful, existing models? Ace Hotel London Shoreditch is a one such example. Founded in 1999, when the term ‘co-working’ was coined, it has become synonymous with its communal lobby workspace. 3den is another example of a slick, well-functioning third space. Launched in 2019 in New York, 3den describes itself as an ‘urban sanctuary’ for ‘the in-between moments of the day’. Using a pay-as-you-go system, it offers nap pods, workspaces, lounge spaces, meditation rooms and charging stations among other spaces.

Ace Hotel London
Photograph courtesy of Ace Hotel

Both Ace and 3den are beautifully designed and furnished but it’s the versatility of each space which is key. You could grab a coffee, catch up with a friend or work on a proposal. There are no boundaries, the space is yours to interpret as you wish, and it’s this fluidity which commuter students crave too.

Some universities are beginning to catch on. The University of Manchester, for example, was the first UK institution to introduce a nap pod, opening the ‘Zzz Zone’ in 2014. Others around the globe, including University of Miami and Stanford University, have followed suit, and University College Cork has stated that napping on campus is now “officially encouraged”.

University College Cork via Twitter


Sleep pods are a start in shifting how students interact with their environment and legitimising university campuses as a space to relax as much as a space to learn. A small start? Yes, but an important one that shows that as the private sector increasingly adopts the third space model, so too must universities.

KerryAnn O’Meara sums up their importance: “Third spaces are a powerful way to increase retention, strengthen on-campus peer networks, enhance faculty and graduate student agency, and create a sense of belonging.”

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