Leader: Mending the town-gown rift

June 30, 2006

The word "studentification" - the subject of this week's report by Universities UK - Jis a blot on the English language, but communities in a growing number of towns and cities are well aware of its meaning.

Regional development associations and city councils may associate it with urban regeneration, but to residents it means noise, mess, high property prices and even school closures and the loss of local facilities.

As the publication of the UUK report demonstrates, universities know that the phenomenon is one they must confront if they are to maintain their traditionally good relations with their neighbours. But, since problems occur mainly when students move out of hall into private-sector housing, their powers are limited. The code of practice being drawn up by UUK shows willing, but it will not prevent private landlords swamping a locality with student housing. That can only be done by councils, as Glasgow has done and as others are considering.

The scale of the problem would be more manageable if there had been discussions, such as those that took place this week with MPs and local authority representatives, back when mass higher education was in its infancy. Even in the last higher education White Paper, or in the voluminous Dearing report, the consequences for communities did not emerge as serious issues. Rather, the focus was on the benefits for employment and investment. These should not be underestimated: the demand for new institutions and branch campuses is as strong as ever. But the residents who live among large student populations are no longer prepared to put up with the downside.

However belatedly, universities are beginning to act. The appointment of community relations officers and encouragement for student union campaigns are among the initiatives aimed at addressing antisocial behaviour. Some, such as Sheffield University, have ambitious building plans that will allow them to release some of their own student housing stock back into the community. But if there is to be significant progress nationally it can only be through joint efforts between local authorities and universities.

The two have not always been natural allies, and even this week's talks saw unhelpful point scoring. Thoughtless behaviour in student areas must be tackled, but it is not on a par with the criminality that prompts police crackdowns on lawless estates.

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