This article is more than 1 year old

How to do town gown during a global pandemic

This article is more than 1 year old

Megan Robertson is Vice President Welfare and Community at Bath Spa SU

We often hear the phrase “Town and Gown” being referred to as an important relationship within the higher education sector – and in our current climate we need to work with our councils and communities more than ever.

As the Vice President Welfare and Community, it is my job to build our relationship with the local community and as many fellow sabbs will agree, this is sometimes easier said than done – particularly in a city where students make up a quarter of the population.

One of the main meetings that I attend is a unique partnership within the city of Bath, known as the Students Community Partnership or SCP – and I want to share my experience of being a part of this partnership, and how useful this approach is.

“The SCP is a bridge between the University of Bath and its Students’ Union, Bath Spa University and its Students’ Union, Bath College and its Students’ Union and Bath and North East Somerset Council. It supports student residents and permanent residents in coming together and living in the community of Bath.’

My introduction to the SCP was something of an “in at the deep end” experience as I soon learned that the partners took turns to chair the meeting for a year, and last year was Bath Spa SU’s turn to chair the SCP.

Getting the job done

As the chair of the SCP my job was to decide the agenda, and ensure that each meeting ran smoothly. Now I am a confident person, and public speaking comes naturally to me – but I had never chaired a meeting before or really understood the role when I found myself amidst a sea of councillors and senior university staff. I was nervous but the SCP is a long running partnership that is highly valued by all sides, so with the support of many jokes, smiles and both SU Deputy CEO’s next to me (very helpfully writing notes) I got through it.

The SCP is an important part of our relationship with the community of Bath. It is funded by its partners and employs a staff member to manage the projects on a day to day basis, with some admin support. This is not an easy role, and the coordinator deals with complaints from residents of Bath about issues such as noisy neighbours and bins, following these up with the students themselves, mediating points of tension and repairing the relationship with the complainant.

The SCP also runs regular information campaigns and an annual door knocking scheme, where the Vice-Chancellors, Councillors and SU leads take time to visit households in residential areas to say hello to residents and students. Incentives like this, as well as directly talking to residents about the SCP, boost morale within the community of Bath, which I’ve seen evidence of when speaking to residents during our door knocking incentive.

Positive progress

Over the years we have secured funding for our #NeverOk campaign (bystander and sexual harassment and assault awareness training) that has provided essential training for staff at clubs and bars across Bath, as well as students and staff in our educational institutions.

Each year we also work with the British Heart Foundation, collecting used and unwanted items from students as they move out of their accommodation, ensuring items are recycled and raising over £1million pounds in the process.

But any sabbatical officer will know how extraordinarily challenging keeping a good relationship with their community has been and this doesn’t always come with ease, even with partnerships like this.

House parties and road cones

One of the main agenda items I brought to the table was how Bath welcomed students to the city. We had seen examples from other councils and universities with huge banners or signs, and we thought maybe that might show that the community isn’t against our students. The Council and community still are reluctant to put up a sign to welcome students when they first arrive.

I think one of the problems here is being blinded by all the negative images of partying, noise and poor behaviour which overshadow all the volunteering, litter picking, working in local businesses, creative activities and fundraising students regularly undertake and the support for our communities and the NHS since Covid-19 hit. Sometimes it is difficult to see what more can we do to help students to be recognised as local residents who live and work in the city, and are just as part of the community of Bath as anyone else.

Over lockdown, I was appalled by a piece of graffiti that appeared outside one of our halls of residence in our city centre. It stated some awful language, which I won’t repeat here. As soon as I was made aware of this I brought it to the Coordinator of the SCP, and it was taken down immediately. This goes back to my point previously, why do noise complaints or bins outway the good students do? The SCP is not only there to help residents but also students.

The council now chairs the SCP. With this in mind, I want to be able to fight for students, maybe get that sign, and figure out a way of properly integrating us into the community of Bath, without having a nose turned up at us. We should be using this partnership to look at how to support students during the lockdown. We need to keep spreading the positive stories, the work the partnership does and stop blaming students for the rise in Covid numbers, ensuring they are treated as human beings, who will probably, like myself and many of my friends stay here beyond being a student and become an integral part of the Bath community.

Despite the challenges, the SCP continues to be at the heart of our Town and Gown relationships and I feel proud to say I was a chair of such an important partnership.

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