Beyond town and gown

The relationship between students and locals is fraught with long-held mistrust and resentment. Ex-student Jenny Nelson looks at the colourful history of these often segregated communities, and meets some of the student activists who are trying to break out of the ghettos they've inherited

October 24, 2008
9 min read


Jenny NelsonJenny Nelson is Red Pepper’s political organiser.

Most literature on university-community relations focuses on the capacity of the university to contribute to the local economy and regeneration. The other social impacts of universities on their immediate localities have often been overlooked. I set out to uncover what effect this void is having on the activist and campaign world, wondering what ideal roles students could play in social movements outside the university.

I found three main areas of conflict. First, students and non-students do not always want to campaign on the same issues. Second, even when they do, they often fail to appeal to one another and form strong alliances. Third, there is the problem of how to get along with each other in residential areas. These three issues are linked but solving one does not necessarily solve another.

A bloody history

The two sides of ‘town and gown’ have long been posed in opposition to one another. As far back as medieval England we can find examples of conflict between student incomers and the indigenous population. In 1298 a band of Oxford students attacked more than 50 townspeople with bows and arrows, mortally wounding a number of their victims. Half a century later, on 10 February 1355, the even more bloody St Scholastica Day riot ensued as a result of continuing local unrest and anger at students’ immunity to local taxes. Locals were so enraged by the attitudes and actions of the students that they invaded the university, killing students in retribution. The clash, which led to around 90 deaths, is said to have started with a dispute in a local pub, and the public house features again in more recent examples of conflict.

Researcher Elizabeth Kenyan has found that one of the main outcomes of such conflict was the provision of segregated living and working environments to house students (A Community Within the Community? An empirical exploration of the constitution and formation of ‘student areas’, Lancaster University Ph D paper, 1998). This style of campus was adopted almost universally until recent times. But now that a greater proportion of students are living in residential neighbourhoods, renting ‘houses in multiple occupation’ (HMOs, or ‘houseshares’), they increasingly compete for the same space as local communities. The latter is closer to my experience in Withington, a residential area of Manchester, where an anti-student campaign developed while I was there.

Although the picture now is far removed from the days of bloody battles, there are recurring issues of inequality, clashing lifestyles and different senses of community spirit that have remained unaddressed and are present in the Withington example.

Student heaven or hell?

‘Students in Withington: heaven or hell?’ This was the title of a Withington Civic Society public meeting in May 2007, which more than 200 people attended. The student population of the area has been steadily increasing for some time, but despite every household being invited to the event I was the only student who showed up.

Many angry residents voiced their concerns about the influx of students, who they felt were destroying their community. Roger Smith, the Civic Society’s chair, believed the tension stemmed from two interconnected problems: ‘the over-arching one of huge numbers of students moving into an area for 30 weeks every year, and the day-to-day local gripes of noisy parties, unkempt gardens, inconsiderate parking, overflowing wheelie bins, etc.’

One man heckled throughout the meeting, shouting bitterly and with much emotion: ‘Remember the Orange Grove!’ The Orange Grove was once a public house favoured by the locals, but had become a student-only nightclub. This seemed to be the last straw. Most of the residents were willing to tolerate the seemingly self-destructive lifestyles of students in the area and they were quick to point out that most of their gripes were with absent or ‘irresponsible’ landlords, rather than their student tenants. But when it came down to losing focal points of their community and having neighbours priced out of the area, they’d had enough.

The primary initiative to come out of this public meeting was the establishment of a working group of residents, students, officers and councillors, who meet regularly and have visited other cities for inspiration. The group demanded and won a visit from housing minister Iain Wright, who, as the local paper reported, ‘waded through food, filth and furniture to greet them’. It is currently lobbying the government for an additional council tax to be levied on HMOs, for a limit to be put on the number of HMOs in a street and for planning permission to be required before a family home can be changed into a HMO. It has also pushed the council and universities to develop a Manchester ‘student strategy’, which seems to be well overdue, considering that Manchester has one of the largest student populations in Europe with almost 90,000 students in the city.

The activist and the everyday

As with other UK student bodies, only a small minority is politically active and, judging by attendance at their events and the lack of press coverage, they are not taken very seriously by the general public. Julius Lester would not be surprised. He wrote in his Revolutionary Notes of 1968 that: ‘The student radical has to become an everyday radical before he can be totally trusted. He must know the concrete problems that face the everyday person. And while such issues as the war in Vietnam, the repression of Mexican students and the invasion of Czechoslovakia are important, revolution is made from three eternal issues – food, clothing and shelter.’

Can we link these big global campaigns with everyday struggles at home? Many student campaigns that I have participated in have grappled with issues – anti-capitalist, anti-climate change, anti-war – that exist far beyond the campus limits. For such issues to be faced head-on, a degree of consensus would have to be reached across different sectors of society. My fear is that currently students are far too out of touch with the rest of society to be able to raise an effective rallying cry.

If students were seen to be engaged on a community level, aware of local, everyday struggles, then their political arguments might carry more weight. Perhaps this is key to dislodging the stereotype of student activists as naïve and only discussing abstract or distant issues using academic jargon. When campaign targets are chosen that are about more than student affairs, and students and non-students can be found starting to work together, the effect can be quite impressive.

‘Students can bring some great assets to campaigns,’ as long-term environmental activist Marc Hudson observes. ‘They have time, imagination, a lack of fear over getting arrested, humour, distrust of elected officials. And importantly, they are being trained in critical thinking and research skills. I think it is crucial that students stay engaged at a community level, and bring their refreshing approaches to revitalise off-campus campaign groups.’

But not all comments from non-student activists are this positive. Jessica Ryan from the No Borders network points out how ‘even though they have debt and many work, the perception is that students have a three-year party.’ She says that the nature of No Borders campaigning in support of refugees reveals great disparities of income and wealth. ‘There is certainly the barrier of a class difference here. As students don’t seem to want for much, there can be a little resentment.’

Reliability is another common sore point. John Ally, who helped manage the Basement, a radical social centre in Manchester, agrees with others I spoke to that students often commit to high levels of involvement in a project but only for short periods of time. ‘We lost over half of our volunteers every time term ended or an essay deadline was approaching,’ he recalls. He points out, too, that students are unlikely to be found joining campaigns that involve lobbying local government. Because of the transient nature of the student population, ‘they are unlikely to vote, or be interested in how the council works’.

The class and wealth divides have also shown themselves in the increases in crime directed against students. Many urban universities have responded by actively encouraging students to stay in ‘safe zones’ that are covered from every possible angle by CCTV cameras. This is despite the National Union of Students campaigning against student segregation and the ‘studentification’ of areas.

Further difficulties can arise in basic organising, as Robbie Gillett, communications officer of the University of Manchester student union, explains: ‘I was torn recently when deciding whether to push for a climate forum event on a Wednesday, when we have students on campus, and would get more people turning up, or on a Saturday, when we would get more locals.’

There is a minefield of issues to take into account if you want to dismantle these barriers and allow a broad range of the public to feel ownership over and to actively participate in a campaign. Sensitivity to class or wealth divisions, meeting locations and time constraints are just a few of the issues that might crop up.

Is it worth it?

Is it worth the fight for greater integration of student and non-student campaigning? There are some student campaign organisers who aren’t convinced. As Angela Lawrence, a member of a radical reading group at Manchester, puts it: ‘We have a tough enough time radicalising students as it is, and that job would become a lot harder if it had to involve integration with local groups and issues.

‘We are busy competing with the heavy – often sexist – club-night promotions, pub crawls and society socials. Universities have noticed that student life seems to be more and more about the nightlife and started to promote themselves on the basis of their club scene.

‘The entertainment industry is huge and if a campaign group wants to attract students then it has to be ready to compete with that, and I think other students are best placed to do that job. We can stick to our strengths and organise in a way that suits a student lifestyle, because that’s all we can do at the moment. That isn’t to say that we can’t link up with other groups on occasions, but we can’t make full integration a priority.

‘It is also likely that we will be able to get more students out in the street if we focus on student issues – we have seen this in German student campaigns against the introduction of fees, for example, where they had some victories. So we will always have to have some student-only type campaigns to keep momentum.’


Jenny NelsonJenny Nelson is Red Pepper’s political organiser.


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