Town & Gown: Singing the praises of campus and Canaries

August 29, 2003

Caroline Davis looks at the university city of Norwich

There is an old Norfolk saying, "people in Norfolk do things different", and so when the University of East Anglia was established in Norwich 40 years ago, they chose the motto "do different".

It is difficult to find serious conflict here between town and gown. The medieval city, which has the highest density of churches in the UK, gave the university a municipal golf course on which to build its campus, two miles out of the city centre, cementing what has proved to be a flourishing relationship.

Although undergraduates playing Frisbee have replaced golfers on the fairways of the UEA campus, local residents regularly venture in too. The university's £14.5 million Sportspark - including an Olympic size swimming pool - is open to anyone for a 50p fee. Internationally significant works, housed in celebrated architect Norman Foster's Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts building, are also accessible to the public at a slightly higher price.

The city benefits economically from having more than 30,000 students and accompanying staff that comprise UEA, the Norwich School of Art and Design and City College Norwich. Last year, UEA opened a medical school, bringing a new university hospital to the area.

The education institutions offer an international element in the largely homogenous population of the city, which was shortlisted for UK City of Culture 2008. "Norwich doesn't have much of an ethnic mix," UEA's pro vice-chancellor Moya Willson explained. "The majority of ethnic faces will be seen on our campus."

Norwich's major employers, such as the Norwich Union insurance group and the city's high-tech sector, are growing, which means an unusually high proportion of students stay on after they have graduated and settle in the area.

Of course, relations between the city and its academic institutions have had their ups and downs - local residents have complained about rowdy behaviour from students and have blamed local traffic problems on student cars, while the university has claimed that local youths have provoked fights with its students.

In the early days, the university could not provide housing for all its first-year students. Many were forced to live in private rented accommodation - often in the nearby Golden Triangle area - and local residents protested about the drunken escapades and mess. But the situation has now been resolved, according to John Hindle of Golden Triangle Properties. "Now I think the university has a chance to educate them (about their social responsibilities) so it's a lot better than it was. The Golden Triangle is the most soughtafter area in Norwich. It's within walking distance of the city and has vibrant shops and pubs."

Brian Watkins, executive member for enterprise for Norwich City Council, said the main flashpoints had been over students with cars.

"There have been problems with student parking and residents have been concerned. There have been traffic-flow problems too, with congestion in the south-west of the city."

Naomi Alderman, a postgraduate student at the university, said that in her experience the relationship between town and gown had not always been good.

She often witnessed minor brawls outside her flat. "I do notice that Norwich seems to have more gangs of angry, drunken, scary-looking young men roaming the streets on weekend nights than anywhere I've ever lived - including Manhattan."

But she also agreed that the university worked hard to be part of the community. Her landlady is just finishing a part-time degree in history at UEA and Ms Alderman said she was impressed by how much the people of Norwich used UEA's facilities such as the Sainsbury gallery and the summer schools. She said this compared starkly with her undergraduate days at Oxford University.

Achieving this situation has taken work, however. Professor Willson was appointed as pro vice-chancellor for external affairs five years ago, during a major rethink of management at UEA. She was given special responsibility for the city. "It seemed to the university that the relationship with the city needed serious work," she said. "It was a good investment to be seen to be working with the community, not just living on the edge."

Professor Willson set up various bodies, such as an economic round table, and was involved in planning the Millennium Forum building, a central venue for the performing arts. As people in the city got to know her, the role proved to be a useful gateway to help locals make use of university services.

In recognition of her work, the city this year appointed Professor Willson sheriff. Although it is a largely honorary role, involving "several hundred social engagements and at least eight Christmas dinners", Professor Willson believed it emphasised the powerful bond between town and gown.

She took over from Bryan Gunn, a former player for Norwich City football club (the Canaries). "This shows the city values the university as much as the football club," she joked. But she said that her role makes the university very visible locally as she attends local openings, school events and business meetings. She also sits on the planning board of the local council - which has been helpful in putting the university's case when building plans are put forward.

In return, the university offers 40 £1,000 awards to local people who want to come and study at UEA. About 20 per cent of UEA students come from the area.


Norwich city
* 122,000 residents

University of East Anglia
* Founded 1963

* 13,000 students (10,000 undergraduate)

* 2,200 staff

* Located two miles outside city centre on a parkland campus donated by the city

Norwich School of Art and Design
* Founded 1845

* About 1,000 students

* 150 permanent staff

* Based in city centre, degrees accredited by Anglia Polytechnic University City College Norwich

* Founded 1891

* 20,000 students

* Higher education degrees accredited by Anglia Polytechnic University

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