Town and gown: how has Covid-19 affected relationships around the world?

Poppy Humphrey, a town gown relations expert, reports on how international student housing sectors are adapting to the challenges of Covid-19

This pandemic is infiltrating every aspect of HE sector activity – among them, off-campus student accommodation and relationships with local communities, ie town and gown networks. Here’s a global perspective from members of the International Town & Gown Association

United Kingdom

The UK Town & Gown Association (UKTGA) strengthens town and gown partnerships by providing a network of off-campus practitioners and resources, identifying and sharing leading practices, innovative solutions and creative opportunities within off-campus communities. Now with just under 400 members, the UKTGA has seen officers from universities, councils, the police, students’ unions and academics come together to share ideas, experiences and practical solutions. During lockdown, the UKTGA has held a number of virtual forums to discuss the challenges faced in a higher education environment with regards to university accommodation both on campus and off campus and the knock-on effects on the communities they sit in.

The series of forums have enabled a temperature check to assess the progress of key issues which have evolved over the past six months, particularly how effective our university and wider stakeholder relationships have developed to manage town gown relations.

Managing off campus issues remotely has been a major challenge for many in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Initially, there was a feeling that remote working was constraining and, whilst this is still the case for many, these new practices have also seen opportunities to offer more support to those in need. It has also opened up new ways to work collaboratively with civic partners and residents to provide the support networks which some residents can feel connected. Maintaining those local relationships is now more important than ever. In some settings, local residents have been a key source of intelligence at a localised level, with the majority of officers working from home.

A key issue has been locating and collating information concerning the number of students still residing in either university or purpose built student accommodation (PBSA). In all discussions, it was clear that different higher education institutions (HEIs) had different levels of relationships with PBSA and houses in multiple occupation (HMO) providers, which created challenges with accurate and consistent data collection. These concerns were echoed via colleagues at the Association of Student Residential Accommodation (ASRA).

We know that students’ health and wellbeing had been an increasing concern for HEIs even before the Covid-19 pandemic. However, increase in mental health cases due to isolation, financial hardships and bereavements have added to an already stressed health service and the need for ongoing support from our students. Concerns around crime and safety, particularly issues of hate-related incidents have been an area of concern, and the UKTGA works with agencies such as www.pahelo.co.uk  to ensure that policing input is considered.

Anticipating risk

The knock-on effects of the pandemic are wide reaching – touching upon student housing, patterns of socialisation, the night time economy and enforcement procedures, right down to the protocols for managing off campus communities such as waste and recycling services and end of year donation schemes.

The burning question is, how will the new academic year look? Moreover, how can we practically engage with students and wider community stakeholders about life off campus to ensure our communities are supported and educated safely and effectively? The logistics of having community event, door-knocking exercises, or even opening our offices are now shrouded in complexities.

In the UKTGA’s recent virtual forums, Cooper Healey, manager of Manchester Student Homes and chair of UKTGA spoke of the importance of looking ahead and being ready to adapt “offering these collaborative forums engendered wide ranging discussions about how we can work together to protect our communities. It is vital that we are scanning the horizon to anticipate the risks being posed to our town gown communities and plan, where possible for every eventuality. This will enable our localised town gown partnership to be agile in this ever uncertain and challenging situation”.

An academic perspective

 The UKTGA has a history of collaborating with leading academics, most notably Professor Darren Smith, on issues surrounding ‘studentification’ and ‘de-studentification’ and this work will continue to develop. Considering the relationship between universities and the wider community, the group recently collaborated with Kevin Richardson of UK Research & Innovation and a visiting fellow at Newcastle University to consider the role of  ‘civic universities’. This discussion considered the debates around the structural relationships between the divergent state (national and local), the individual (student and firm) and the nominally independent university, and how this international crisis will see a demand a new approach to the use of real values which can underpin a renewed relationship with local people and places.

America

The USA-based International Town and Gown Association  (ITGA) is the premier resource for addressing challenges, emerging issues and opportunities between and amongst institutions of higher education and the communities in which they reside. This network enables a truly collaborative approach encompassing a network of professionals and resources, identifying and sharing promising practices, innovative solutions, and professional development opportunities for municipalities and university communities.

ITGA 2020 was a hugely successful virtual conference held in June and which saw over 260 delegates participate in a range of sessions that covered everything from the impact of Covid-19 in crisis communication and community engagement, to off-campus life and neighbourhood challenges, and economic recovery and innovation. Following this, the ITGA has been instrumental in pulling together several online opportunities to facilitate and support off-campus practitioners navigate their way through the Covid-19 crisis and enable members to formulate robust plans for the new academic year.

As a follow-on to the conference, ITGA, in collaboration with the National League of Cities University Communities Council, has produced several webinars as part of the ITGA Connects and Courageous Conversations series to highlight pressing issues and their impact on town-gown communities across the globe. The latest in the series will be about the implementation of college reopening plans, where the panel will discuss the impact on the community and the role institutions and municipalities have in working together to keep students and local long term residents safe.

Challenging discussions

Against the backdrop of the racial tensions in the States (and beyond), the ITGA has demonstrated its commitment to ensuring members are supported on broader social issues, enabling honest and probing discussions. The ITGA is actively seeking submissions for ‘ITGA Connects and Courageous Conversations’ sessions that address challenging themes, and collaborations that identify constructive outcomes and solutions. In August, Humanity in Policing  will address meaningful change in police systems and cultures. In September, the National League of Cities’ Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) department will deliver a curriculum to guide participants toward an expanded understanding of racial equity and how it can impact our leadership and interactions. This virtual training programme will focus on equity and inclusion practices/policies with a specific focus on leadership and community building to better support universities and municipalities.

Commenting on the ongoing work during the Covid-19 pandemic, Beth Bagwell, executive director of the ITGA says: “The values which underpin our work centre around facilitation, communication, education and support, and never have these been more integral than in the current climate. We are continuing to adapt to ensure we are offering our members and friends of ITGA across the globe the opportunity to work together and devise practical solutions to the current events and steady the challenges we face when managing town-gown relations”.

A goldmine of resources

Sharing and collaboration opportunities are fundamental to the success of the ITGA. The website is a goldmine of leading practice resources ranging from educational initiatives, local ordinances, law enforcement partnerships, economic development and community engagement models, to name a few. With case studies from both universities and broader stakeholders across the USA, Canada, and the UK, the website provides a plethora of support, tried, and tested models, which is further reinforced by the numerous learning and networking opportunities on offer.

Scandinavia

Covid-19 has affected the Nordic countries in different ways, and the measures taken by each government differs. But many of the challenges when it comes to student housing are the same. How many students will arrive? How do we make sure they are safe in shared accommodation? Do we keep common areas open and what about the international students? All this boils down to two main themes; how to keep the financial losses as small as possible and how to keep the students safe.

The issue of money is closely connected to the number of students demanding housing, especially international ones. It’s a common concern across the Nordic countries, but the universities are handling the matter differently. In Finland, the national organisation for universities of applied sciences has recommended its members to abstain from international student exchange. The same goes for Norway, where many Norwegian universities have cancelled all international exchange for the fall semester. In Trondheim, this clear message from the university has helped the local student housing organisation to focus all their resources on attracting domestic students, which will soften the otherwise quite extensive economic loss.

In Sweden, the story is quite different. The student housing providers can only rely on the national and international travel restrictions. In other words, it is hard to know when, or even if, the students will arrive. To help, the Swedish government has implemented a temporary resolution allowing all universities in Sweden to let out student housing to domestic students as well as international. But with both a product and a booking system niched for international students, it is easier said than done. Add the time frame of less than two months, and the mission seems even more impossible.

Keeping the students safe and happy

Reducing the spread of the virus is only one part of keeping the students safe. This has been done quite effectively by providing information in line with national recommendations and change of routines for example customer service and repair works. But it also means preventing loneliness and depression. MKB, the biggest student housing provider in Malmö, has conducted an activity tour aiming to promote physical and mental health – all done within the restrictions of social distancing. Catrin Jacobi, student coordinator at MKB, explains how it started. “When we closed the gyms, we noticed how important they were to the students. Therefore, we started to plan for something that could replace the gyms, but it quickly grew into something which also helped to tackle loneliness and spread joy”.

The 15 different activities, including yoga, music performances and kickboxing, were held on the different student housing sites across the city. The activities allowed the students to get a break from the studies, share an experience with other people and get some exercise. The tour was such a success that MKB may do it again it in the future, Covid-19 or not.

Preparing for the future

A few months into the pandemic, both students and landlords have adapted to the new ways of living, but the fall semester means new challenges – both regarding risks for vacancies and informing new students on how to stay safe in their new accommodation. Clear rules from both universities and government is key, and the impression is that conditions are getting clearer in all the Nordic countries. A few questions marks remain regarding the international students – a concern not restricted to the Nordic countries but shared by student housing operators all over the world.

Let’s face it, whatever the country, it’s nearly impossible to consider any positives that have derived from Covid-19. Yet, from a collaborative perspective, the impact of experiencing a challenge that affects us bilaterally, has enabled the development existing networks and forge ahead to create new relationships. Effective collaboration is vital to ensure success, irrespective of the sector – such relationships enable us to drive up standards in the management of off campus relations and to mobilise us to a position where we as practitioners can not only survive, but thrive, and in turn ensure our students and local communities can too.

Poppy Humphrey is Off Campus Student Affairs Officer for Manchester Student Homes and a member of The UK Town and Gown Association. She is currently the only UK-based qualified practitioner in town gown relations (as certified by the International Town and Gown Association) 

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