Speaking their language

August 22, 2003

Alison Utley listens in at Leeds in the latest in our series on university cities.

When schoolteachers approached the University of Leeds last year to ask whether any linguists would be willing to help integrate some refugee children, they could scarcely have imagined the scale of what was to follow.

One year on, the project has grown into a hugely successful support network that has helped refugee children from 15 schools across the city improve their English. It was so well received that it should grow significantly next year and has sparked a range of related activities.

Making the connection between the needs of a diverse community and the expertise contained in a large civic university on its doorstep has rarely been so effective, and the university is proud of its achievement - particularly when so much energy seems to be devoted to promoting ill feeling towards students in the city.

Ruth Burke-Kennedy of the university's City, Regional and Widening Participation Office said it all came down to being a good neighbour and shouldering social responsibility: "Our aims are to improve wider community relations and develop external partnerships," she said.

"The refugee network fits in on all these levels. Projects such as these are designed to cater for the needs of specific groups, and not only do the refugees themselves benefit but their families and schools benefit too. It encourages staff and students across the university to participate in voluntary work."

She said many languages were in demand, including Albanian, Dari, Farsi, Indonesian, Polish, Russian and Spanish. The volunteers - both students and staff - work with children under the supervision of a teacher for two hours every week.

Many, such as Elizabeth Adamson, a second-year economics student who speaks French and Portuguese, find the work valuable: "The project is one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences I've been involved in.

"I have been volunteering at a nearby primary school, doing bits of translating and helping the children with their school work, but more often than not it is just taking the time to show an interest and listen that is important.

"Sometimes it is hard work but the positives far outweigh the negatives - putting a smile on somebody's face and watching their confidence grow is such a rewarding feeling. I will definitely continue to volunteer on this project next year and would encourage others to do the same."

The university plans to expand this work by developing links with union societies so that volunteers represent different faiths as well as different languages.

In addition, a related project will be piloted from January 2004 at Leeds City Library, where university volunteers will be trained by library staff to assist unaccompanied young adults to access library resources. An important aim of the project is to map refugees across the city. A conference is being planned later in the year to discuss how this work might be expanded. According to Ms Burke-Kennedy, the university recognises the importance of striking a balance between the needs of its students and the sometimes conflicting needs of the local community. That balance is notoriously difficult to maintain in a city where student housing has been a cause of consternation for many years.

The university has recently conducted a public consultation process on its new housing strategy. Leeds provides housing for about 7,000 students in its own accommodation in a bid to reduce the demand for student housing in the private rented sector, in particular in the Headingley area, which is the most popular student destination thanks to its lively social scene.

But some long-term residents of Headingley complain that they are suffering from the burgeoning number of landlord-owned shared houses in the area, which they fear are squeezing out families.

The battle against the spread of these properties is lead by a pressure group called Headingley Against Landlords (Heal).

Chairman Bill Rollinson said: "Our main aims are to recreate a sustainable, balanced community in Headingley and surrounding areas and to protect long-term residents from the ravages of uncontrolled landlordism."

Headingley resident and Leeds MP Harold Best is an outspoken critic of the way that the city's universities have handled student expansion and the behaviour of landlords and the drinks industry. He believes have all contributed to the degeneration of the community.

"I have campaigned endlessly to try to persuade people we must tackle the problem of degeneration head on," he said.

A GP who has lived in Headingley for more than six years has mixed feelings about the student presence in her neighbourhood, which, she concludes, has its ups and downs.

"Student bashing is a popular practice around here but there are many young professionals living in multiple-occupancy houses as well as students," she said.

"I've had pizza crusts jammed into the door handles of my car, the aerial has been broken and someone thought it was a joke to walk across my car roof recently.

"I don't know if students are to blame. But while Headingley is quite busy and noisy from September to June, and there does tend to be litter and debris in the streets and late-night high spirits, it can feel a bit like a ghost town in the summer when they have left."

Heal is calling for Leeds city council to introduce a shared housing registration scheme to control the development of shared housing and place the responsibility on the landlord for maintaining the appearance of properties and meeting all safety standards.

The group is also calling for a ban on "To let" signs, which can dominate some streets, and to limit growth of new pubs and clubs in the area - of which there are already a very large number. Heal would also like Leeds City Council to refuse planning permission for any new shared housing in Headingley.

The city's unitary development plan commits the council to "resist increase in existing concentrations of student accommodation" because it says the sheer number of students in Headingley gives rise to all these problems.

And a shared housing action plan has been devised to tackle noise nuisance from, for instance, taxi horns and unattended intruder alarms.

Alison Ravetz of Little Woodhouse Community Association said one of the most irritating problems was landlords' refusal to look after properties, particularly gardens. "Many are absentee landlords who don't take notice of long-term residents. They just think that they can do what they like and make changes to property. There are probably good landlords but unfortunately it is only the bad ones you hear about," she said.

In a bid to show willingness to listen to problems, the university has introduced a neighbourhood telephone helpline and email service for people to register their concerns. A community projects officer acts as a point of contact for communication between local residents, students and the university.

The projects officer oversees community clean-ups and an annual community week, which aims to provide information necessary for students to live harmoniously in their community. The university is also an active partner in the West Yorkshire crime reduction scheme, which gives advice to students about lowering crime levels.

Another common tension is the perceived contrast between sports and learning facilities available to university students compared with the often inferior services for other townspeople.

At Leeds Metropolitan University, the mismatch is being met head on as library facilities are being opened up in a pilot initiative that could change the way university libraries in the region operate.

Philip Payne, head of learning support services, said the idea was to encourage librarians from further education colleges, city libraries or schools or community organisations to refer people to the university library where they could become members for the day.

A network of voluntary mentors will be trained to guide first-time users through the library systems to ensure they get the most of what is on offer. Mr Payne said: "Using a university library for the first time can be quite intimidating and scary.

"We want to make sure people can make full use of our library facilities.

Not only will this bring great benefit to the community, we very much hope it will become part of our widening participation strategy and help ease the transition to higher education for people who may not have considered this before. This is, after all, what community relations should be all about."

Student numbers - 2001 census

  • Over the past decade the population of Leeds has grown by 5 per cent to 715,000. More than half the increase took place in the Headingley district, where the population has grown from 16,000 to 25,000 over the period
  • In Leeds as a whole, 21 per cent of the population is aged 16-29, but in Headingley the figure rises to 69 per cent
  • The number of students has grown by 125 per cent over the past decade and Leeds has the third largest student population in the UK after London and Birmingham

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