How can we avoid students being made scapegoats?

This article is more than 1 year old

Open up the local newspaper website and type ‘student’ into the search bar.

I did, and low and behold I was not impressed with the overwhelming negativity that comes up – a trend that has been intensifying in recent years. Here’s some examples of headlines found on local newspaper websites that have all been published this academic year:

If you delve into the comments sections it can get much worse. While there are splashes of reasoned analysis put forward, often they take the form of direct abuse at students rather than the universities, local councils or in many cases private accommodation providers.

Getting on Facebook

In addition to this I would encourage all wonks to join the Facebook groups that exist for residents in local areas where there is traditionally student housing. This is where we often see more people putting forward their opinions due to the ease of doing so and the nature of the platform itself. You tend to see the same common themes: frustration with the volume of purpose built student accommodation; noise and anti-social behaviour; pressure on infrastructure such as parking; students leaving an area unkempt; extra demand making it harder to buy starter affordable homes, and perhaps one of the biggest underlying grievances – students using council services that they don’t pay council tax on.

More worryingly, this very much fits a political culture that is feeding on the creation of social divides. Assigning blame to a group of people is nothing new, but in an arguably less tolerant society, the hostility that has been seen towards migrants and the direction of Brexit all provide a backdrop. So we should we be worried that students are being targeted in a similar way.

The picture of student life

London aside, looking through university prospectus’ we see the same pattern of first year university provided accommodation before moving out into traditional student “digs” or newer purpose built accommodation. University recruitment paints a picture of “student life” pre-arrival which may not reflect the reality in local student communities. Students turn up to study and go on a journey, and there is a need to ensure the reality of their lived university experience reflects the one they are informed of pre application.

There wouldn’t be a need to notice if there wasn’t an element of often struggling media companies capitalising on people’s fears in a click bait climate – but regardless, we must address the concerns instead of just blaming the media. Local residents are bound to have concerns if they see rising house prices, a perpetuated stereotype of students as Richie Rich and co. of the Young Ones who will ruin an ideal community with loutish ways, and even more worryingly local councillor candidates opposing ‘studentification’ in their manifestos without acknowledging that students are residents too.

Engaging with the community

There is clearly a need to work with and address these concerns as part of public engagement strategies or risk students and local communities becoming more divided. That engagement has to both be at the highest levels with local authorities with responsible planning and growth that can be sustained, and on the ground with the people who make up the diverse communities our students live in.

There is much positive work being done with many universities creating roles that focus on the student experience in the local community about cohesion. More and more students’ unions have full time student officer roles that focus on ‘Community’. There are fantastic volunteering schemes run by universities and students’ unions, courses that work with the public through degree shows, demonstrations and more.

Targeting effectively

It’s crucial that these efforts target people in the community where our students live. Their time in that community may be temporary but we need to ensure that it is harmonious for all through the creation of a diverse community. Without listening to and ultimately acting on the concerns of residents – dispelling myths, ensuring a neighbourly standard of behaviour and ultimately running schemes that bring together longer term local residents and the student community, we are at risk of creating more challenging living situations for our students, creating resentment and content in towns and cities on the ground level.

All of these efforts also require a community organising approach, and are as much about educating local residents and our own student populations to result in the longer term changes that we will need to see. We may not be able to fight the click bait articles and there is always going to be some underlying tension, but universities and local authorities have responsibilities they must take. When students turned up for their university experience they had little to no influence over the problems identified – so it’s crucial we work together to avoid them being made scapegoats.

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