What role should students and their SUs play in the community?

Most universities want to talk about student life – they’re keen to profile an excellent student experience, and locate it in the context of living in a great town or city.

But look at the comments below the articles in local media in most university towns and cities, and you’ll find a less positive set of comments about students and sector growth. The truth is that there are some unfortunate realities for locals, and some problematic situations for students themselves.

In several locations, universities’ strategies for growth have proved to be divisive. There’s a rational basis for growth serving an ambition to continue to be world-leading university for research, education and the wider student experience. But there has often been a clear failure to think, act or communicate on the implications.

The housing market for students is often laughably broken. Here in Durham, SU and NUS research shows that 59% of our students look for a house to rent in November of first year compared to a national average of 40%, and stock is of such poor quality that 15% of our students said their home had made them feel mentally unwell.

The economics are often heralded in reports – universities are fantastic at asserting why their presence in a place adds £X million of value, but the downsides are much harder to discuss in public. Its why Durham University was a fantastic partner in addressing that unacceptable pub crawl which offended our collective values, but were less keen on tackling the quality of housing in Durham – until we started work on this strategy.

And some students don’t understand or respect the city and its people. Sometimes, this just generates local coverage. Here, national stories broke last year of students insulting the people and heritage of Durham in a ‘Thatcher versus miners’ pub craw.

A positive vision

The absence of a positive vision for students in our towns and cities lets a perception arise that students themselves are the problem. But it’s the policy decisions that bring students to an area, and it’s policy that influences both on and off-campus lives. Could SUs step up to challenge narrow and unhelpful narratives, and use student voices to guide universities into taking community leadership responsibilities seriously?

Let’s imagine that we start by assuming that:

  • Students have the same rights and responsibilities as any other residents of cities.
  • Students’ interests sometimes align to the university’s and sometimes don’t, and it’s important to understand the difference.

Take anti-social behaviour. Many universities and SUs will collaborate on seeking to reduce incidences of noise, or littering, or parking. But we wanted to talk about things that matter to the generality of students as well as the behaviour of a minority of student residents. We warmly welcomed investment in a Community Liaison Officer, and work well with the team. But whilst we are sympathetic to the issues, fundamentally we don’t exist to change our members’ behaviour – Durham SU is a students’ rights organisation.

So our community work goes to the heart of what makes independent SUs essential in higher education, starting not from “how do we solve behaviour X?” but from “what are students’ interests in their life off-campus?”. The SU agreed a purposeful, focussed, community strategy in June 2019, and we’re thrilled with it.

Policies and priorities

Where leadership has been absent, or policy has unanticipated or unwelcome impacts on students – such as making them face the brunt of community concerns in hostile forums, or trying to live in uninhabitable rooms – a distinct set of priorities should be articulated. This means community strategies that addresses students’ rights in four themes:

  • The right to good services: students (like any other resident) have the right to shape the provision of health services, economic development, deployment of the police service, and public transport routes in their interests.
  • The right to access cultural and social assets: students offer talents, time, and resources to solving problems that affect all of us, like homelessness. Students contribute and benefit from volunteering, performance, and the wider voluntary sector.
  • The right to a good home: the quality and cost of housing in most towns and cities represents a broken market. Universities – as providers of often high-cost housing for first years and others, must accept their responsibilities to behave as responsible market actors.
  • The right to be represented by people who champion student interests: Councillors, Police Commissioners and MPs who shape policy which affects students should do so knowing what students care about, and be held accountable by them.

At Durham, we thought it was important to publish a document which guided our policy, campaigns and services in the city because in times of pressure on budgets and time, it wouldn’t otherwise be resourced. It certainly wouldn’t be something we would be held accountable for delivering. It’s why it was important to discuss it through both our democratic and corporate structures, because the whole SU is committed to this work – it’s a policy we intend to deliver, not just an expression of hope.

And the act of stating our priorities has helped our university step up to its obligations. We’re proud that our institution is now facilitating conversations with the County Council, and considering its role in challenging poor health service policy.

Our community strategy is unique to our context – you’re welcome to take a look but copying it won’t work. Any university signing up to the Civic University Agreement should think about the role that students ought to play in the community – not just as objects whose behaviours are to be reformed, or as smiling volunteers to plug holes in local servicers, but as active citizens.

At the heart of being a SU is the principle that where students are affected by the world around them, they have the right to affect it back. We were very proud to put our money where our mouth is with our community strategy.

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