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The Kerslake Collection | Social purposes

Studentification and town-gown relations 

Estimated Read time: 12 Mins

Three of the most extraordinary hours of my career were spent observing two focus groups for the Civic University Commission. Initially, it was quite depressing. Split by socio-economic background, participants in the first group were what public-opinion experts call the C2s (skilled working class). While they were not overly hostile to their local universities, there was no great love for them – the local universities dominated the city but were not seen to be relevant to them. They certainly didn’t perceive universities to be civic. 

What did impact on their lives were the students living in the city. There was a feeling that the expanding student populations could be a serious nuisance. I remember one member of the focus group talking about the antisocial behaviour he had to deal with as a tram driver, which he blamed on university students (not that there was any way of validating whether his perception was reality or not). More broadly, students could appear transient and therefore of little benefit to local residents. If students weren’t coming from the local area or staying to work there, their benefit was not always obvious to the focus-group participants (‘They come, they study, they party, they go’). At the same time, there was a sense that students were being prioritised over local residents (‘The council has forgotten about the rest of the community’). This was particularly evident when discussing housing and the built environment, which the group felt had become dominated by high-rise student accommodation, without any development for locals. 

The mood in the second focus group was completely different. Participants were from wealthier ABC1 backgrounds – typically middle-class professionals. According to these people, the universities were one of the best features of their city. They had all engaged with the universities in some civic fashion – attended a guest lecture, used their facilities or taken part in a cultural programme. Comments about students were positive, recalling stories of civic-minded young people contributing to the local community through volunteering. One person said that the success of the universities had helped to increase their house price. 

This recollection is important for two reasons. The first is the stark class divide. The focus groups were a manifestation of features in polling the UPP Foundation ran for the Commission. The research found that the middle classes were much more engaged with their local universities, and much more positive about them than their working-class peers. This is a finding that has been repeated in subsequent UPP Foundation and HEPI polls on the public’s attitudes towards higher education. The second is the importance of what we might call ‘studentification’ issues, or what were historically called town-gown relations. In various speeches to the higher-education sector about the Commission, Lord Kerslake often underlined the importance of the town-gown issue by telling the story of when he first spoke to his wife about the Commission. Her response (not unreasonably) was to ask whether it meant he was going to ‘sort out the car parking’ in Sheffield. Five years later, I’m not entirely sure we can add parking to the long list of Bob’s many achievements, but the light-hearted response from Lady Kerslake was illustrative of a wider point. As a university sector, we like to show off our new shiny achievements – be it a new local project or a new facility used by the public. But the sector is rarely as good at focusing on everyday issues, often seen as mundane, which have a profound impact on local communities. Civic University Agreements are a good step at co-producing civic plans and strategies in partnership with key local stakeholders, such as the further-education college, the NHS hospital and the local authority. But any cursory glance at their priorities shows that in the main they have not been used as a tool for directly addressing potential studentification flash points. 

This increasingly matters. On an annual basis, domestic and international student numbers may fluctuate. But if you take a step back and observe the sector over the decades, it is clear that there has been a rapid increase in student numbers. For someone who grew up in Sheffield in 1974, there would have been fewer than 10,000 students living in the city. Today, they would be sharing their city with more than 60,000 students. While there are different modes of study, the residential experience remains a significant feature of higher education. The large migration of students every autumn has a profound impact on all university towns and cities, but it has particularly affected smaller cities where, according to the Commission, the university ‘dominated’ the town or city. 

These cities are shaped by the student body. Students shape the residential and rental economy, the leisure and cultural economy, the sporting economy, the transport economy. As a result, they impact on interrelated quality-of-life issues, such as the cost and availability of housing, the nature of the city centre, the evening and nocturnal city, culture, integration and community relations. The challenge of fostering pride of place – such an important theme in the Government’s 2021 Levelling Up White Paper – when a large part of the community is transient or temporary is also an important issue, if a little more nebulous. 

Yet local communities have no real say or control over any of this. In our unplanned and uncapped university system, the market rules. Student numbers and recruitment policy is completely divorced from the impact it has beyond the campus, for better and for worse. What can make this even more challenging for local communities is the pace of change. Towns and cities recently experienced this when the cap on domestic student numbers was removed, which led to more selective universities expanding rapidly. They experienced it too during the recent boom in international students, following the unmet demand from Covid and the reintroduction of the graduate post-study visa. Local communities, as well as universities, need the infrastructure and capacity to meet this demand. Often when challenged about international student numbers, the sector’s response is simply to argue that we need to ‘build more’. But – to state the obvious – the speed at which a university can recruit large numbers of students is much quicker than the speed at which a town or city can build the infrastructure required to support rising demand. Even more problematic is the question of whether the infrastructure can be built at all, given the nature of the economy. For example, commercial real-estate firm Cushman and Wakefield has warned that the costs involved in building and financing purpose-built student accommodation mean that even the 74,000 beds that already have planning permission are unlikely to be delivered. Beyond this, of course, the physical residential infrastructure is only one aspect of the challenge: infrastructure, as we have seen, extends to retail, cultural, educational and health provision.

Building for extra demand is of course a risky business, because the flip side of the debate about rapid growth is the potential for rapid contraction as demand fluctuates. Indeed, while growth can present real problems for some towns and cities, dealing with growth as an issue is dwarfed by the impact of rapid decline. And this isn’t some theoretical issue. Following the boom in international students and the Government’s response of restricting visas for students’ dependents, there is now a significant fall in international student numbers. This is coupled with a softening of domestic demand at a time when the sector is under significant financial pressure. More than 60 universities are undertaking restructuring or change programmes, and the Office for Students has said that 40 per cent of providers are expected to be in deficit in 2023-24. 

A university going under would be catastrophic for the town it is part of – not just in terms of the direct jobs and livelihoods lost, but for the businesses that rely on the student and staff pound. Teesside University, located in an area of high deprivation, employs more than 1,800 people. Analysis published in 2020 showed it spent £86.7 million in Tees Valley in the previous year. Its separate gross value added has been estimated at £141 million per annum, with £99 million directly benefiting Tees Valley and £28 million in the wider North East. Like many universities, Teesside is implementing a voluntary redundancy scheme, and as a well-run university it’s unlikely to go bust. But if demand were to fall further because of the external environment, it may encounter very serious difficulties. Middlesbrough as a city would experience severe challenges with a much-reduced institution, or without its university at all. The long-term economic damage to towns and cities would be huge. 

As Jim Dickinson, associate editor of Wonkhe, notes in an article, higher education is a sector ‘profoundly unsuited to rapid contraction’, but ‘profoundly unsuited to rapid expansion too’. The same applies to the impact on university towns and cities, which are equally vulnerable to the boom-and-bust cycle of higher-education recruitment. 

To overcome this, we need an active government. But measures for tackling rapid contraction are clearly different from those that respond to rapid expansion. To deal with contraction, there needs to be financial stability and security, so that university towns do not suffer from the significant consequences of institutional failure – as many towns and cities did when dominant extractive or manufacturing industries closed in the 1980s. University-representative bodies have suggested several ideas. Direct investment and restructuring plans for universities experiencing severe pressure, an increase in domestic fees in line with inflation and an increase in the teaching grant for high-cost subjects are some of the most common. These are all sensible ideas, albeit focused on overcoming the immediate crisis. But what the Government and sector need to get to grips with over the longer term is reducing higher education’s reliance on international student income. This isn’t simply because of the changing nature of government policy and its impact on recruitment. In an era of US-China trade wars and geopolitical instability, not to mention climate change, cross-subsiding domestic teaching, research, campus development and civic activity through international student fees is a recipe for a permacrisis in the sector. And a permacrisis for the sector is a permacrisis for university towns. 

For universities and places dealing with the consequences of growth, national government should steer clear of arbitrary caps on domestic or international recruitment. Reimposing student number controls on UK students will result in students missing out on higher education altogether. And international caps – such as those mooted by the Canadian and Australian governments – are not required, as demand has fallen since the Government’s change of policy on dependents. 

A more imaginative response would involve government utilising the levers of devolution to enable local solutions. After all, growth is likely to be sporadic and is better mitigated by local communities themselves. There should be an expectation that universities collaborate with their local authorities over sustainable growth – be it domestic or international. In this vein, both universities in Nottingham and the city council recently published a Nottingham Student Living Strategy, which included three priorities: to improve the quality of accommodation; to encourage neighbourliness; and to maximise graduate retention through community cohesion. Initiatives like this should be the norm, not the exception, and should be integrated into the planning environment. A more radical option would be to embed growth, accommodation and infrastructure plans into the sector’s regulatory architecture in ways that would force local cooperation. At the very least, universities should publish annual sustainability reports, which detail how they are mitigating the impacts they have on their city. 

If government wanted to be really bold, it could consider the option of creating a community levy paid for by universities as a proportion of their international-fee income. Where combined authorities exist, mayors could set the levy up to a maximum capped amount, with the extra resource helping to mitigate the impact of studentification in their region. In places without mayors, it may have to be set nationally, with the income flowing into local communities from national government. This is an idea that would annoy the higher-education sector and its critics alike. Critics would worry that it would strengthen the value of international students politically, while universities wouldn’t want to pay the levy. Mayors would also need to implement this levy carefully and not become dependent on the resource, given fluctuating demand. However, the benefits could be significant, particularly if it focused on directly enhancing the value of international students to those affected by town-gown relations, and those who – like our C2 focus-group participants – don’t always feel the benefits of universities in their community. 

Beyond the studentification impacts of rapid growth and rapid contraction, universities could work with local and national government to support the student civic experience. During the Covid pandemic, there was cross-party lobbying to develop an AmeriCorps-style volunteering and citizenship service programme for young people. If initiatives such as this are looked at again, it is really important that higher education is considered key to its development. For example, a year of service as part of a sandwich year would be invaluable for students, local communities and universities alike. Political scientist Andy Mycock has also recently published a report suggesting that there needs to be greater recognition of the student civic experience, and that this should be embedded within Civic University Agreements. These recommendations are important so that students can be seen to be part of the local community, and not simply passing through. 

As the Neighbours theme tune famously avowed: ‘Everybody needs good neighbours.’ Whether Lord Kerslake was inspired by Ramsay Street or not, this was implied in the foreword to the Civic University Commission’s report, where he wrote: ‘Universities need the active support of their communities in these turbulent and challenging times’. Yet we still have a way to go to convince all in our communities of the value of their local university – particularly those from working-class backgrounds. While there is much good that universities can do to support the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of a place through research, teaching and engagement, they must never forget the basics of being a good neighbour. Policy can make this easier or harder to achieve, but ultimately it is in the sector’s power for – as the Neighbours theme tune put it – good neighbours to ‘become good friends’. 

Richard Brabner

Estimated Read time: 12 Mins

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