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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 November, 2004, 17:58 GMT
Bridging the town-gown divide
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News education reporter

The welcome for students is not always a warm one
So many people are going to university that some of Britain's largest cities are changing beyond recognition.

Although students bring millions of pounds with them, they are not always welcome.

Neighbours complain of noise, rising crime and disorder, rubbish and excessive pressure on housing. Any form of urban blight - blame students.

Leeds is a city with more than 60,000 of them. This is double the number of a decade ago.

Some areas, such as Headingley, are becoming more campus-dominated by the year.


According to the local MP, Harold Best, when the students go home for the holidays, there is little left but "dereliction and devastation".

Crime increases as poorly secured houses are targeted and the community at large suffers, he argues.

The resentment described in Leeds is not unique.

Ceri Nursaw
Some people think most students are anti-social and drink all the time
Ceri Nursaw

Some 44% of people under the age of 30 in England are going to university. The government wants the figure to be 50% by 2010.

But are students all bad? How can they work to make themselves a part of the community during their relatively short time there?

The word "studentification" has been used to describe what is happening to Headingley and areas like it.

When Ceri Nursaw, head of the city and regional office at Leeds University, hears it, a shiver runs down her spine.


"I hate that word," she said. "Students want to live in the community while they are at university.

"They bring a positive benefit. They have made a positive choice to move to Leeds and will be there for at least three years. They want to make it a better place.

"It doesn't matter if you are a long-term or a short-term resident in that respect."

A lot of Leeds students - 1,500 a year - do voluntary work.

Harold Best MP
Harold Best is worried about crimes against students

The university has community grants for them to run programmes such as football training for children.

It has also set up a phone line for disgruntled residents to call. If students are found to have brought the university into disrepute, they are in trouble.

Ms Nursaw said: "There's a label for students and it seems some people think most are anti-social and drink all the time.

"There are probably some students like that, just as there are some professional people like that, but they are not a majority."

'Going forward'

Mr Best has accused universities of not caring enough. In 1997 he proposed building a separate "village" development for students.

He said: "The way things have gone has damaged the infrastructure of a whole inner-city area. It is an area that used to be beautiful and, in just 10 years, has become ugly.

"The seriously depressing aspect of it is people used to think of the universities as our own. Staff used to live in the area and students often lodged with families there.

"A lot of landlords have moved in and distorted the local economy. Now 60% of the people in Headingley are students.

"When they leave for four months of the year, all that are left are old people who get lonely. It becomes desolate."

But Ms Nursaw said: "It's not helpful to say we don't give a fig.

"You can't go back 40 years and create an ideal community that uses only its local shops.

"If you compare Headingley to areas with similar housing stocks and similar distances from the city centre, most have far worse problems.

"It's about reassessing where we are and going forward."

Helen Symons
As part of the whole regeneration of inner cities, students can be quite important
Helen Symons, NUS

The so-called "town-gown" divide is becoming more apparent across the UK as universities grow.

Diana Green, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, says there are huge, tangible benefits from students.

They are estimated to put 1.3bn a year into the national economy.

Universities attract hi-tech investment, creating a further 89 "knock-on" jobs locally for every 100 on campus.

To Professor Green, the wider cultural contribution is overlooked and should be "celebrated".

The "seismic shifts" in population will have a "noticeable effect on day-to-day life in the city", but universities' influence cannot be "consistently predictable and positive", she told a conference run by Universities UK in London.

In other words, students will have problems integrating, just like any large group moving into a town.

Helen Symons, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said: "Often students go to the more run-down areas, which become hubs for young people.

"As part of the whole regeneration of inner cities they can be quite important. It's not always student behaviour that's a problem.

"It's hardly students who burgle their own houses when they are empty. Very often landlords don't provide accommodation that's secure. Students are more often the victims of crime than anything else.

"Student unions are doing a lot of things to start dialogue and help solve community problems.

"One thing that is for sure is that universities are going to go on expanding."

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