Leader: Universities must heed their civic responsibilities

August 1, 2003

Town-gown relations have been a delicate area for generations, originally because the student elite feared for its safety at the hands of resentful locals. But, as the series beginning on page 6 illustrates, the relationship is now more complex and it is important to get it right.

Universities and their local communities have become truly interdependent and will become more so under the government's higher education plans. In an era of "third-leg funding" and official scrutiny of external links, even the most internationally minded institution cannot afford to ignore its regional responsibilities.

While large towns are crying out for universities, seeing the economic benefits that they can confer, some communities in existing university cities are ruing the social impact of an influx of students. Whole areas are being colonised by student landlords, placing property beyond the reach of most families. Those who remain complain of rowdyism and a demographic mix that renders schools unviable. The balance sheet shows higher education's contribution firmly in credit: the university is frequently the largest employer in town, as well as bringing the spending power of its students. Indeed, the increasingly fashionable concept of the ideopolis (the postindustrial city of ideas) has the university at its heart, crucial to attracting prosperous business and industry. Many will say that those who reap the benefits of hosting higher education should take the rough with the smooth, but that is to encourage the re-emergence of town-gown tensions that should be reducing with the development of a mass system.

Universities must live up to their social responsibilities, as well as economic ones, for the partnership to be judged a success.

On the government's side, ministers will have to decide how thinly such benefits can be spread. Without more places, municipal ambitions will remain frustrated. The drive to widen participation will also be affected, since it is known that, in areas of social exclusion, potential students are reluctant to travel even short distances to classes. The white paper and this week's response to the select committee had little to say on how such demand might be met.

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