Tense relations between town and gown are nothing new. Oxford University was once famously the scene of a riot which left nearly a hundred dead when students went on the rampage after complaining about poor wine at the local pub. Local people joined in and by the time it ended 30 of them were dead, along with 63 members of the university itself.
This was, of course, way back in 1355, on St Scholastica Day, 10 February. There’s a sense of a stand-off in the centuries since then, during which anyone with a university in their town just had to watch with bemusement the rag-week pranks and occasional protests by students who were a temporary, term-time curiosity.
Pranks such as the kidnapping in 1956 of Bristol’s much-loved stuffed gorilla, Alfred, from the city’s museum, by students. Alfred had been a family favourite when he lived at Bristol Zoo, and the full story of his disappearance was only revealed in 2010 after the death of one of the kidnap collaborators.
Less fun for townsfolk elsewhere were the antics of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford for which, according to Andrew Gimson, Boris Johnson’s biographer, not “an evening would have ended without a restaurant being trashed … a night in the cells would be regarded as being par for a Buller man.” The culprits, he pointed out, usually paid for the damage in full and often in cash.
So it went on, until the expansion of student numbers and the advent of the night-time economy partly fuelled by it. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of 18–24-year-olds in education in the UK doubled from just under a million in 1992 to nearly two million by 2016. By 2020, another half a million had joined them, with two and a half million students at UK higher education institutions in the UK.
You don’t have to look far to find headlines that reflect the downside of that influx on permanent residents.
In Leeds, for example, the Moorlands Residents Group were in the news in July 2020 complaining that they hadn’t slept for three weeks because of student parties.
Universities across the UK are learning to engage with the problem in ways that go far beyond simply asking students to behave
In Bristol, too, first-hand reports can paint a miserable picture whichever of the city’s two universities students come from. On the Noise Pages, run by a local resident, one report reads: “The noise levels from the house and rear garden were unacceptable…police attended and spoke to the occupants following my call. However, the time is now 02.50 hours.
“The house party is again in full swing. The bass can be felt two doors down and they are constantly in the back garden shouting, singing and swearing.”
Nobody wants it to be like that, and universities across the UK are learning to engage with the problem in ways that go far beyond simply asking students to behave, or acting only to minimise reputational damage.
The University of Exeter is a particular one to watch. Rory Cunningham took up his role there as community liaison manager during that dramatic period of student number growth. “Prior to that,” he said, “most universities were doing something but it often involved a lot of different people and information could get lost, so at Exeter we tried to create a baseline and a network.
“A big part of that has been the residents’ liaison meetings, which we used to hold twice a year but stepped up during the pandemic.”
Rory used to chair that group, but it’s more recently been chaired by Exeter’s registrar, which Rory says “sends a message about senior level engagement with the issues”.
Those issues, says Rory, are predictably about noise, waste, low-level anti-social behaviour and parking. Tackling them, however, goes beyond nagging and threats.
“Our advice to students has been to get to know their neighbours, and when that works a lot of problems can be sorted out. Permanent residents can be anticipating the return of students each autumn, and a friendly introduction can burst that bubble.
“So we try to be proactive as well as reactive, striking a balance. What works best is peer-to-peer, which is why the first thing I set up 13 years ago was the Student Community Warden scheme.”
The wardens, wearing branded jackets, hoodies and polo shirts, encourage the integration of students, working with the Students’ Guild, police and city council to support fellow students living off-campus. The scheme is supported by the university, Exeter Community Safety Partnership, and Devon and Cornwall Constabulary.
There are 15 of them and, says Rory, they make a huge difference. All experienced final year students, they are paid for a few hours’ work each week.
“It’s not just about them knocking on student doors reminding them to put the bins out. They get to fashion their own awareness-raising projects, such as community gardening, community street parties, and litter-picking.”
How does he know any of it works? There’s the dedicated email and phone line that brings issues straight to Rory; a monthly report from the student wardens; the residents’ group; and a three-yearly community survey.
“From all that we get the right intelligence, and can act on hotspots. But it’s also about setting the right tone before we act, which is where our networks come in – with the council, the police, and places such as nightclubs.
“We get positive feedback from residents, not just complaints.”
Exeter is not alone in its proactive stance. Cardiff’s three universities (Cardiff, University of South Wales, and Cardiff Met) have their own joint online advice zone with the city council called Cardiff Digs, which aims “to give students peace of mind about issues that may be affecting them in the community”.
The challenges facing the 40,000 plus students in the Welsh capital, and their neighbours, includes the increasingly popular printable postcards for the making of introductions and details of the council’s 24-hour noise hotline.
There’s also the Love When You Leave recycling and charity campaign, which jointly with the YMCA collected nearly 47 tonnes of reusable goods last year.
In Liverpool, Merseyside Police and Liverpool City Council introduced new protocols around noise complaints in 2018, with the universities of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores. Previously, the process meant a warning letter, monitoring, a council notice to cease and ultimately prosecutions and warrants for confiscation of equipment such as speakers. The changes in 2018 added the ability of relevant university officers to follow up complaints by visiting properties themselves.
It’s all about partnerships. Back in Bristol, there’s a joint working protocol between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England’s (UWE) community liaison teams and Bristol City Council Neighbourhood Enforcement.
The information online helps residents to navigate the maze about who to contact, about what, and when, and beats simply shouting out of your window at students at four in the morning.
The University of Bristol is also thought to be the first HEI to actually fund police patrols dedicated to the issue, with PC Sian Harris based on university premises.
A persuasion campaign is evident, too, on a stroll around some of the city’s most densely student-populated Georgian and Victorian suburbs.
In Kingsdown, for example, someone has printed off the university website’s Love Where You Live posters and attached them to lamp-posts.
“Shhh”, says each poster, followed by a range of pictures and captions. On one poster there’s a medic, or at least someone wearing a stethoscope, saying: “I have to work in the morning,” and perhaps the idea of finding oneself under the knife of a sleep-deprived surgeon is persuasive.
There’s another featuring a young parent reminding students that some people have babies to put to bed; another with a child who needs to be ready for school in the morning. And usefully, because other students are sufferers too – there’s one of them asking for an early night because they have an exam the next day.
Both townies and gownies in Bristol can also print off a delightful template, on which they can fill in their details and post it through each other’s doors as a way of introducing themselves at the start of term.
The challenge of fitting a large and increasing student population into towns and cities alongside permanent residents is not going to go away any time soon; nor get any easier
The challenges of fitting a large and increasing student population into towns and cities alongside permanent residents is not going to go away any time soon; nor, really, is it likely to get any easier.
Neither has the pandemic helped.
According to Rory Cunningham, at Exeter, residents and students were more likely to retreat into their silos during lockdowns. The subsequent lack of dialogue undermines the key driver of success, which is encouraging students to get to know their neighbours. “The pandemic has set us back a bit, so it is no coincidence that getting to know your neighbours is something we are pushing really hard this year.”
The good news is that no university is alone. Rory is the south-west’s representative on the UK Town and Gown Association (UKTGA), with the purpose of ‘‘building communities together”. It helps share best practice, and also build a sense of community between those in liaison roles across the country.
In what other forum, really, would you hear someone discussing how they were “working out what to do with that 10ft blow-up Rick Astley and three-person tortoise costume during tenancy turnover”?
The evidence suggests there is plenty going on to combat any sense that universities simply take the student fees and leave their neighbours to clean up the mess.
What seems to promise most is genuine dialogue between HEIs and neighbours, a determination to keep the issue on the most senior agendas, and the provision of useful resources in what is ultimately an issue that can only be tackled by some element of behaviour change.
We’ve had 18 months of the latter, during the pandemic, and if a nation can be persuaded to wear masks and sanitise hands every five minutes then it’s not impossible to imagine that – if universities continue to come up with and share creative ideas – at least some students can be persuaded to turn the music down.
You might also like: Town and gown: How has Covid-19 affected relationships around the world