This article is more than 5 years old

Can an anchor drag you down?

In his latest narrative, Phil Pilkington examines the role of universities as "anchor institutions" within their local communities
This article is more than 5 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

Universities are known as anchor institutions for the communities in which they are located.

That is, they are unlikely to move location, they provide employment for the community and their students and staff generate demand for goods and services, which contributes to the local economy and creates further jobs through the economic multiplier effect.

The first or best known of an anchor strategy in the UK (a term taken from the USA) was the Liverpool Mayor’s strategic planning with the three universities within Liverpool’s inner-city setting which needed ways of regeneration. It seems nearly all UK universities now claim anchor status, from Exeter in the south and onwards.

An Exeter study showed that, for every three international students, a job was created in the community (noting that this creation has a multiplier effect itself). With the demise of local government under the government’s austerity policy of eviscerating councils, universities are often the largest employer in a city. Even in large and seemingly prosperous cities, universities will have somewhat of an economic impact. Manchester may be large and prosperous as a ‘regional capital’ but it is also home to three universities (including Salford) and the largest community of students in Europe outside London. What could go wrong?

The least secure anchors are the most important

Those cities most dependent on their anchor universities are also home to the most vulnerable institutions. This can be expressed as a probability of a risk to the university of closure, insolvency, restructuring or merging (and thus a radical downsizing of teaching and non-teaching staff and reduction in student numbers). The impact is not purely financial. The social and cultural capital of the area is diminished, and the poverty of aspiration is further deepened. Think of Cumbria, Sunderland, Stoke on Trent in these cases where there is the combined high risks to the institutions and to the local economies.

The social mobility trends for the towns and cities which appear to have higher risk universities are already poor and the impact of closure or downsizing would widen the gap of financial and social opportunities between areas. The differences between Newcastle and Middlesbrough are higher wages, more professional jobs and significantly better schools.

Research by the Centre for Cities throws an interesting light on the vulnerability of the smaller cities (not the Leeds, Bristol, Manchester size) which tells us that their centre-economy is low skill and retail and without the hubs of the “knowledge economy” (finance and legal services) they cannot retain the graduate workforce, and have little cultural capital to offer other than on the campus. Local government, itself struggling in the face of swingeing cuts, should employ the local university to undertake joint strategic planning in order to create their own higher skills economies rather than rely on the failing retail sector.

Town and gown

The cultural and ethnic enrichment which universities provide are not considered benefits for many of the inhabitants of towns and cities. The ‘studentification’ of cities has been seen as a blight on local communities – particularly for those who are long term and socially isolated residents amongst the dense private rental sector housing for students. The ethnic richness does not ameliorate the sense of the local battle with furniture dumped in front gardens, litter in the streets, and noise pollution.

Studentification is a derogatory term to describe the transformation of once proud manufacturing towns and cities into annexes of the service industry centres which support and serve universities. It includes the growth of residences, and the expansion of teaching and ancillary support buildings in city centres. Both these aspects cause anxiety, fear and a perceived or real worsening of quality of life for local and long-term residents.

Local residents can be left behind as enclaves in a large student population. Elderly, poor and without means of aspiring to leave residents talk about a loss of community. Students and gives locals the ability to blame an ‘other’ for their own worsening experience for the permanent residents. Landlords are seen as having little of interest in the community – fly tipping and litter is blamed on the students, who in turn have a lack of knowledge or understanding of the local community.

Local planning and institutional planning

Being surrounded by an assumed privilege whilst in deprivation has seen some tenants’ groups taking action. This has taken the form of campaigns to protect their interests and environment – one classic example is the photographing of students parking in streets taking up local residents’ parking.

These are simplistic examples of wider issues with local planning. There are cases of local authorities creating housing strategies which did not consider students or the volume of students in the planning – at a time when full time and incoming students can be above 20% of the total population of the city or town. The scale and the power of the HE expansion over 20 years has had a significant impact on towns and cities – growth is not at a steady rate, meaning growth spurts of sometimes a thousand students in a year.

The limits of the local geography are either a surprise to some university leadership or dissolved as an obstacle by a need for greater aggression in building programmes without thought or responsibility for the infrastructural support. And the infrastructure is all-encompassing (students and staff; travel and sustainability, carbon footprint, housing, impact on residents, etc). Size does matter.

Are universities for the people?

Where institutions have intervened on these matters we have seen initiatives that reinforce ideas of paternalism – student volunteering, the street wardens in university uniforms patrolling the streets – benefiting the locality at the micro-level but as an image of the relationship between university and town covering other, deeper problems of loss of identity and control of a community.

There’s a need to overcome the ambiguity that universities often suffer from, the nagging idea that they are building not for “the people” but their own speculation and benefit. The boosterism of universities benefiting local and regional economies is mostly inward looking and vague, the distance between Birmingham’s Edgbaston and Ladywood is considerable; the distance between Broad Street in Oxford and the Bird Leys Estate is probably to another country.

This level of commitment to the local community is not enough and the late Sir David Watson’s call for universities to embrace his vision of a new paradigm of being ‘within and for the community’ is far from being realised. Did Sir David Watson foresee in 2015 when he made that call that universities might be unwittingly instrumental in the divisiveness in the community that created the Brexit vote?

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