A global approach to town-gown relations

Modern day tensions between communities and students are not new, but a collaborative initiative that bestrides international borders thinks it can drive fresh progress. Poppy Humphrey explains


The origins of town-gown relations date back to the middle ages. Perhaps most notably, the Battle of St Scholastica Day on 10 February 1355 at the University of Oxford saw a two-day riot break out as the result of disagreement  between the townsfolk and gownsfolk at a local tavern.

Despite being steeped in history, the concept of ‘town and gown’ is less understood by the wider higher education sector than you might imagine. For reference, then, the ‘town’ is the non-academic population of a locality, and ‘gown’ is the university community.

As universities continue to expand, so do the off-campus communities where students reside. There are numerous positives, such as the opportunity for growth of talent and the capability to enhance the local community. Campus community collaborations also provide support for lifelong learning from the ‘classroom of the world’ which sits outside academia.

In reality, despite these opportunities, the meeting of such distinct communities often creates a number of challenges. This requires sensitively handled efforts and dedicated resources to work towards a cohesive environment, in order to offer support to all who live there.

Between 19–22 May, the American-based International Town and Gown Association (ITGA), a network for those involved in town-gown relations, held its 2019 City and University Relations Conference, hosted by the State College Borough and Penn State University. The conference attracted more than 350 delegates from across the globe, with UK representation from the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Birmingham. The very premise of the ITGA is to strengthen town-gown partnerships by providing a network of professionals and resources, to identify and share leading practice, innovative solutions and professional development opportunities for municipal and university officers. What is key to the success of this conference and the ongoing work delivered by ITGA throughout the year is the strength of partnership, reflected by the attendance of university, police, city and student representatives.

ITGA 2019 offered not only a holistic, but a sophisticated approach to considering all aspects of off-campus living and the support of campus practitioners can provide to our students and non-students alike, to ensure that off-campus communities are enhanced by their student presence.

The purpose is to help all stakeholders understand and address complex challenges and processes associated with city and university relationships

Penn State president Eric Barron discussed efforts to foster economic development within the local community and across the state, which underpinned the theme for this year’s conference: collaborate/adapt/change: evolving together to grow a thriving community. Keynote sessions on economic outreach, research and educational programmes, lifelong learning and community assets underpinned the core message of the conference.

While ensuring the economic opportunities are beneficial to both sides of the town-gown equation is crucial, it’s also important to consider the unintended impact of fraternity and sorority life on the community. It’s not something many in the UK consider relevant, yet we ignore overseas influences and cultural trends at our peril. And there are clear links with UK student culture, particularly the role – and responsible management – of university societies.

Beth Bagwell, ITGA’s executive director, says: “As economies in some US and international communities continue to struggle or reinvent themselves, the ITGA is calling for new collaborations that reflect shared interest and immediate needs. Successful town-gown strategies are needed to stabilise and enhance town-gown economies and quality of life.”

Other areas of concern in town-gown management are also worth mentioning. 

How should providers respond to crisis management and public relations in the era of social media and short news cycles? How to promote diversity and inclusion, focusing on the support offered to off-campus students to ensure inclusivity through community outreach innovations, from food insecurity and affordable housing solutions to public art and placemaking.

Collaborations that fuel economic, fiscal, environmental and social sustainability is also a focus, equipping attendees with knowledge to enhance the quality of off-campus communities though sustainable planning policy. Such policies enable a tremendous opportunity for communities to see the draw of universities, and, of course, engagement is key to success in this area. The importance of many of the issues and topics discussed transcend geographies, most notably health, wellbeing and public safety.

Further transatlantic learning comes from looking at policies associated with the negative community impacts in off-campus locales. While there are clear distinctions between the UK and USA (different legal drinking ages, several US state rulings to legalise marijuana), the importance of offering support to students and focusing on harm reduction remains a common goal. 

Recognising the patterns and shared experiences of American colleagues, the UK Town and Gown Association (UKTGA) was formed to ensure the same practical support and knowledge exchange was available in the UK. Having formed in 2014 the UKTGA now has over 300 members and holds a biennial conference, the next to take place in November 2020. The group comprises regional steering group representatives and is overseen by Cooper Healey, manager of Manchester Student Homes and UKTGA chair. She explains, “Through our collaboration with North American ITGA partners we recognised that there was a dearth of such support for off-campus practitioners in the UK. For us, it’s not so much about reinventing the wheel, but sharing and supporting each other to drive up standards within this specific sector of HEI. We all have individual stories, and challenges but there is a lot to be learnt from both a practical and academic sense.”

UKTGA Steering Group

One such academic lead in this field is Prof Michael Fox of Mount Allison University, New Brunswick, who recently co-authored the Studentification Guide for North America: Delivering Harmonious Town and Gown Associations alongside Loughborough-based professor Darren Smith. The phrase ‘studentification’, coined by Smith, describes the processes of urban changes associated with growing residential concentrations of students in off-campus localities, encompassing social, cultural, physical and economic dimensions.

The research, launched at ITGA 2019, showcases examples of leading practices in the context of studentification and addresses the complexities of town-gown relations. While acknowledging a number of challenges associated with two very specific groups coming together, Fox discusses the opportunities universities and their students can bring to local areas: “Adding more diversity and vibrancy, and supporting the development of local creative economies, can act as a catalyst for urban regeneration and capital investment programmes.”

For those working in this field, the town-gown relations certification programme is offered by both the ITGA and UKTGA. This course enables the professional development of officers via industry experience in the world of town-gown relations, using real-world experiences to inform practical solutions. The purpose is to help all stakeholders understand and address complex challenges and processes associated with city and university relationships; and to identify, foster, and promote the skills necessary for the effective development of collaborative partnerships and alliances throughout college towns.

From housing to health and alcohol policies to accreditation schemes, it is clear that these themes are complex and far-reaching, and ongoing support is vital for our students during this period of maturation. The message is clear, this is about partnerships. We as practitioners have a duty to collaborate and build practical solutions, to ensure the best student experience off-campus, and contribute positively to our communities. Town-gown relations will continue to be an area of increasing focus, and it is vital that those working within the sector use these established networks to support one another, our students and our communities.

For more information about the ITGA visit: www.itga.org. For more information about the UKTGA email: poppy.humphrey@manchester.ac.uk

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