Town and gown: The biggest employer but its customers 'are revolting'

August 1, 2003

Tony Tysome begins our summer series looking at the impact of universities on their local economies and communities.

Loughborough University is working hard to convince local residents of the value of more students, who are better known for anti-social behaviour than for economic and voluntary contributions

Property manager Andre Funnell has no doubts about the importance of Loughborough University to his business.

"Student accommodation accounts for about 90 per cent of our work. Without it, we would not exist," he said.

Taxi driver Vincenzo Guarasci is equally grateful to have a rapidly growing university in his patch.

Driving past the part of Loughborough most densely populated with students, he said: "It's worth a lot to me. About a quarter of my business is taking students and other people to and from the university."

A taxi ride along leafy Ashby Road, a gateway from the motorway into the town lined with large Victorian and Edwardian houses hidden behind carefully trimmed hedges, gives no hint of the recent battle fought between its residents and the nearby university over plans for new student accommodation.

Turn into Storer Road, however, and many estate and letting agents' signs hanging along the rows of terraced houses illustrate why some local people feel the university is beginning to have a detrimental effect on their lives.

Of 720 properties in this area, 420 are occupied by students. The average price of small terraced houses has more than doubled in five years, from about £45,000 to £110,000, keeping many first-time buyers out of the market.

There have been reports of local schools suffering from falling rolls as families move out to escape increasing problems of noise, vandalism and anti-social behaviour. Although students are not always the cause, they are usually blamed.

Adrian Bailey is the university's community warden and the only member of staff living in the Storer Road area. He said growth in the number of students living locally exceeded residents' tolerance threshold about five years ago.

Their patience finally ran out when the university ignored their objections to its joint application with management company Unite to build new accommodation that would increase the number of students in Ashby Road. In June, the university lost its appeal against a decision by the local Charnwood Borough Council to refuse the development, after a concerted campaign by residents.

Mr Bailey commented: "The basis of the dispute was a failure of the university to see that enough was enough. Eventually, it got stuck into a rut trying to win. If it had been more inclusive at an earlier stage, the outcome might have been better."

Loughborough University registrar John Town acknowledges that the university has learnt some lessons.

"We did not expect that level of opposition. I think we have learnt something about the way we go about talking to local people. But I don't think we can be accused of not listening," he said.

The university is now looking for new ways to accommodate the 1,800 more students it hopes to have by 2007-08. One possibility is to build a student village on a 163-acre technology park it has bought on Ashby Road.

Mr Town says the £35 million acquisition, representing the largest single investment in the university's history, will bring more jobs to the area. A new systems engineering centre to be housed on the site will also help technologically advanced firms across the region become more competitive by improving engineering systems skills. It is an example of how, according to an independent study, the university is "at the core of knowledge-based employment generation in the local area".

Mr Town said: "We are the largest employer in the area with the biggest single input into the local economy.

"As the university has grown, it has taken up the slack in terms of employment in the town as many traditional industries have declined. We also act as a magnet for start-up companies. We have an innovation centre on campus that acts as an incubator site for small businesses, and we are creating about two spin-off companies a year."

Ashby Road residents' campaign spokesperson Rosie Peddle is unimpressed.

She said: "I find this argument that the university employs a lot of people, therefore it's OK for students to vomit on your doorstep, a bit hard to take. There are other big employers in the area who provide plenty of jobs, but their employees or customers don't come and piss in your garden."

Jonathan Hale, director of community engagement for Charnwood Borough Council, said it was not surprising that a university with nearly 15,000 students a year had a big impact on the lives of people in a town with 55,000 residents.

"With 15,000 students, if each one commits just one anti-social act during their whole time at university, that amounts to 15,000 anti-social acts a year," he said.

He is certain, however, that the university is "of absolutely vital importance to the town and its economy", which is why the council has been working closely with residents and the university to try to smooth the town-and-gown relationship.

The university itself is also making efforts to improve its image and its involvement with the local community. It is opening up more of its world-class sporting facilities and its arts centre to local people and organisations. It has also appointed community relations officer Alison Barlow to take a frontline role in town-and-gown public relations and to produce a quarterly newsletter for local residents.

She said: "Information is the key. If people feel like they know what is going on, they are more likely to go along with you. But if they feel they are in the dark, that's when the rumour mill starts."

Loughborough's student union has proved one of the university's greatest assets in the drive to win over local people. It has two full-time staff working on community action, and more than 500 students have volunteered to do community work as a result. Its rag week raised £35,000 last year for local charities, it runs a nightbus to help keep students safe and off the streets, and has invested £1,500 in an alcohol-awareness campaign.

Student union president Gina Jackson said: "A lot of people's grievances arise because they do not understand the situation. Once you start talking to them, the problem is not so bad."

Mr Town said he had sympathy for the plight of the minority of residents who are on the receiving end of up to 200 incidents of "anti-social behaviour" that are serious enough for security staff to be called out.

He said: "It is true that if people are vomiting in your garden, the economic benefits of the university tend to fade into the background."

But he added: "It tends to be the university that gets the blame, but in fact there are changes happening in towns like Loughborough across the country that are doing well economically and have an influx of people that can affect the nature of the area. Inevitably, if we succeed in bringing more jobs to Loughborough, it will not be the small sleepy market town it was 30 years ago."

What Loughborough gains from university

* The university employs 2,600 people directly and creates 600 jobs through knock-on effects. It accounts for more than one in ten employees in Loughborough

* University, staff, students and visitors spend £41 million a year on local goods and services

* The total annual impact of the university on the output of the Charnwood economy is estimated to be £18.8 million.

Source: The Economic Impact of Loughborough University , DTZ Pieda Consulting, January 2003

How higher education helps the UK economy

* In 1999-2000, UK institutions spent £12.7 billion, 58 per cent of which was on labour costs

* The total off-campus expenditure of overseas students in 1999-2000 was estimated to be £1.3 billion

* Total personal off-campus expenditure of overseas business and recreational visitors to UK institutions was estimated to be £125 million

* For every 100 jobs within institutions themselves, 89 other jobs were generated through knock-on effects in the economy

* For every £1 million of higher education institution , a further £1.56 million was generated in other sectors.

Source: The Impact of Higher Education Institutions on the UK Economy , Universities UK, May 2002

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