A dose of anti-social realism

January 7, 2005

A minority of students must be prevented from poisoning community relations, says Anne Monaghan

"Anne, there are about 200 students outside, gathered in the middle of Palestine Street.

"They seem to be holding some kind of protest. There is a lot of noise and shouting. Glasses are being smashed. We are afraid to leave our homes."

I received this call at midnight on November 23. It had not been prompted by a Middle East human rights demonstration. Nor was it some reenactment of Paris, 1968. This was Belfast, 2004. The issue was community relations.

A BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight programme depicting anti-social student behaviour in the Holyland area of the city had just finished and outraged undergraduates had taken to the streets to protest at how they had been portrayed. About 90 per cent of properties in this overcrowded square kilometre of Belfast are now student occupied.

Long-term residents, some of whom have lived in the area for more than 50 years, have experienced high levels of waste and endured noise and trouble-making. Many have had enough.

The tensions that sparked the protest are not unique to Belfast. This could have happened in any university town where residents felt the "studentification" of communities had got out of control.

As student numbers have grown, so has the anti-social behaviour of a minority. In the absence of strategic housing policy, concentrations can reach saturation point.

The University of Ulster and Queen's University Belfast have committed substantial resources to addressing what has become a major town-and-gown issue.

Together with student leaders, the two institutions have lobbied for measures to ease the plight of everyone living in the area.

The midnight protest helped convince the local council, planners, housing authorities and politicians that they needed to cooperate to tackle the problem.

A moratorium on further development in the area has been backed up by a new law that prevents family homes being converted into student accommodation without planning permission.

The highest-profile initiative will be the introduction this year of community wardens who, in liaison with universities and other agencies, will protect everyone living in Holyland.

Their presence will hopefully persuade long-term residents that there is no need to mount patrols to identify the perpetrators who woke them and their families in the middle of the night.

When a property or individual is deemed anti-social, the two universities will use disciplinary powers ranging from warnings to expulsions to force students to take responsibility for their actions and deter troublemakers.

Such action should convince communities that they do not need to take the law into their own hands, as has happened.

Universities must work hard to protect their good name. Communities need to know that they are being listened to and expect results when they complain.

Many universities are still in denial, pointing to thousands of student volunteering hours, community initiatives and rag weeks as proof of a positive contribution.

But none of this will convince locals that students benefit society or the economy if they are kept awake by late-night parties and drunken roaring or if they witness acts of vandalism and criminal damage. This makes for a decidedly negative contribution.

The argument that students should be treated as employees and not be held accountable by their institution for their off-campus behaviour does not hold up.

Universities have quasi-judicial proceedings and should use them as part of a strategy to protect students and their own reputation.

The rest of the country could learn from Belfast. In the aftermath of the midnight protest, student leaders organised a public meeting to discuss their concerns.

The final word is best left to James Byers, Ulster's student union president, who said: "The role of students should be to enhance the communities where they live, not vandalise and destroy them."

Anne Monaghan is community relations manager at the University of Ulster.

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