The UK needs a vision for its student cities

Jim Dickinson has spent the summer sleeping in city centres, dreaming of empty retail space being turned over to the thousands of students living in them to foster community and collaboration

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

I have visited (and slept in) a lot of university towns and cities this summer – and one thing that the nation’s taxi drivers all seem to agree on is that they can’t wait for students to come back.

That’s partly because they’ve all watched as office dwellers and shoppers in their locale have been being slowly being replaced by students living in cluster flats – and the better off among them tend to avail of the services of said firms from time to time.

I was staying in one such city the other day. Plymouth seems to have a major (and controversial) capital project going on involving ripping out the trees from the central artery that runs from the station down to the Hoe – but even when it’s finished, the emphasis on the hoardings seems to be about retail and food.

Could have fooled me, etc etc

My ongoing contention is that in all of the cities where retail is collapsing or retreating, there’s only so much vaping, crazy golf, soft play or formatted dining that a local economy can bear. Wilko’s, Marks and Sparks and Debenhams won’t be returning because some trees have been chopped down or some new benches installed.

I was actually staying in a city centre halls block above some retail just off the main strip – like in so many cities, where we might have seen new build just a few years back, increasingly we’re seeing office blocks and retail being converted into spaces that can house the very rapidly growing population of largely international students that the sector is recruiting.

But what really struck me was that apart from a grim looking and tiny social space, the building lacked anywhere for students to meet together, laugh together or even (in the case of my very single room) love together. And unless I walked up the hill to campus – which is not one that I have on my list as being especially blessed with acres of social learning space – the surrounding city centre doesn’t have much either.

What’s the plan?

A glance at the Plymouth Plan – partly propped up by the government’s Transforming Cities Fund (TCF) aimed at improving public transport – underlines the problem. There’s mention of the city’s three universities in the economic contexts we’ve come to expect – but basically nothing in the bits that talk of the role of the city centre in supporting community or communities that references the city’s students.

In fact right across the myriad university towns and cities I’ve stayed in this year, unless I love a Costa or am wearing a coat in all months other than June, I’d be especially lonely and unable to bash out an essay unless I’m close to campus. Yet in each of these places acres and acres of retail lies empty – with strategies for transformation seeming to serve local communities rather than the emerging student community that’s actually there now.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – we’ve talked on here before about the way in which students are often “othered” by local authorities. And the explosion in student city centre living to some extent pre-dates the development of these sorts of schemes – with no evidence at all that the International Education Strategy even thought about where students would sleep, let alone meet, talk, perform or plan together.

Towns are just as bad. The Towns Fund for England was a £3.6 billion fund for “struggling” towns across England to both support local economic growth and reimagine the role of their centres in communities. But I’ve now read (or at least CTRL F’d) all of the plans that came out of that fund in towns where there’s a university campus – and with a couple of exceptions, to the extent to which students are mentioned, it’s as pound signs that might use a market rather than as citizens that might need space to study or grow a business.

It’s especially frustrating because everywhere we’ve been recently on our SU study tours we’ve seen signs of municipalities at least trying.

Letting students lead

In Antwerp, for example, back in 2011 the local council was lobbied to create a “Liveable Student City (‘Leefbare Studentensta’)” strategy, and it’s not just about housing. As well as a city-supported student activities body and associated building, there’s a formal student consultation body that represents students to the city on everything from co-working space to cycle lanes.

In Sweden, SFS (its NUS) runs a student city of the year project that focuses on efforts made by the local authority and university to make a city student friendly. Criteria includes work on housing, transport and civic engagement – there is much competition to get the award, and its impact on more powerful municipal bodies is palpable.

In Helsinki, a joint “World Student Capital” project organised between the city’s SUs collaborates with the region’s city authorities, universities and housing providers to promote a better everyday life for students as well as citizens – producing impressive students city reports and a national student barometer with information on issues like students’ wellbeing and housing – as well as internships and the ability (or otherwise, given the infrastructure) to combine studies and work.

In Oslo, a huge former office block and retail property will soon help bring together students from across the universities and contribute to realising the city “as a capital of knowledge”. The space will facilitate “coping with student life, building social networks and personal development” – not least because:

Physical meeting places that facilitate social relations, networking and cohesion are probably more important than ever in a society that is becoming increasingly digitised.

It’s an assertion backed up in a UK context in this year’s Jisc digital experience report – which says 40 per cent of students are studying in cafes rather than campuses or at home – doubtless because those homes and campuses are increasingly unfit for or too small for the purpose.

In the Netherlands we frequently came across deep collaboration between students and city officials. And even across the less financially well-endowed Baltics we saw strategies putting students front and centre as people – with events, transport strategies and housing plans all recognising students as citizens with needs rather than just people with pounds.

Dream a little dream

There are of course endless barriers to making this sort of thing happen in the UK – as well as the lack of money and the history and culture of local politics, there are very strong elastic pulls back to “the campus” as the principal place for students to engage in a physical community.

But there are risks in inaction. Rapidly replacing Chinese and European students with those from the global south might have kept the excel sheet in good shape, but I keep hearing of awful examples of racism in everyday work and community interactions from students innocuously interacting with their city. That needs real work, and fast.

It feels like a stretch, but one day governments won’t be dealing with schools that are literally crumbling, there’s a chance that England in particular will one day not be quite so centralised, and a politician or other will have to address the increasingly bleak and hollowed out spaces that are our urban centres.

Even if the arguments do have to made in economic terms, this analysis from the centre for cities points out places that want to attract and retain a greater number of graduates need to focus on policies that support the creation of high-skilled knowledge jobs – and that means deciding to invest in transport, housing and infrastructure that both graduates and students would say they need.

SUs should be collaborating now on town- and city-wide student led fora to set out a positive vision for a student (and graduate) friendly city. Universities ought to be actively exploring empty retail from a student perspective wherever the prospect appears.

And when the national big names start descending on our urban centres over the next year in an effort to win those votes, they ought to be causing some attention on the students now residing in them in tiny, hidden box rooms.

The census might not show it, and nor will the council tax receipts – but there’s plenty of them. Just ask the taxi driver.

One response to “The UK needs a vision for its student cities

  1. “But what really struck me was that apart from a grim looking and tiny social space, the building lacked anywhere for students to meet together, laugh together or even (in the case of my very single room) love together.”

    Many overseas students have little use for, or time to use, ‘social space’ as they’re focused from a young age on being Academically successful, and some of their sponsoring Governments don’t want them socialising, especially with UK/Western students, lest they start to question…

    In my home City we have a number of privately built for student rental buildings, and a growing number of converted office blocks and similar ex-commercial spaces, which sounds great, except most students, apart from the ghettoised students who have University accommodation for their entire 3 year course, end up only living in them for a year, then renting a HMO, denying locals a home to rent or buy. The discourse needs to address this issue as well, not just for the students benefit.

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