Earlier in my working life I lived in the Clifton area of Bristol, a place of spacious Victorian terraces and townhouses on beautiful tree-lined avenues that surround the historic University’s main buildings.
Many a morning I would leave for work to find signs of local students having ‘enjoyed’ themselves the night before, including – on one frosty Tuesday – a half-eaten kebab resting on my car windscreen. A word of advice: don’t use your wipers to try and clear mint sauce as it just tends to smear.
Nevertheless, I didn’t really mind as I was living there for similar reasons – to enjoy the buzz of nearby pubs, bars and eateries, many of which owed their continued existence to the sizeable student population living in the area. And they are numbers that have grown rapidly in recent years.
In Bristol, there were fewer than 10,000 full-time undergraduates in 2002. A decade later it was nearly 14,000 and this year it is closer to 20,000 plus 6,000 postgraduates. All of these have to find private accommodation to rent after their first year of study.
This growth has been repeated across Britain, transforming the fortunes of many towns and cities in the process. But some are struggling to accommodate – both actually and figuratively – the boom of those who are there for a good time not a long time (alongside rigorous study of course).
The continuing surge has put pressure on availability, increasingly now met by private student accommodation developers, with some projects not finishing in time for the new academic year. Starters at Portsmouth, Liverpool, Durham, Lincoln and Swansea have been unable to move into their new digs this autumn, with some Bristol freshers housed an hour away in Newport in South Wales. In all, a third of the 22 student developments underway have faced construction delays. The Universities Minister has called for a summit with developers to address the issue.
Bristol’s other seat of learning, the University of the West of England (UWE), has sought to solve the city’s shortage with temporary ‘pods’ in one of its car parks while it builds 2,000 additional rooms on campus by 2022. Tenants however have criticised the 8 ft by 10 ft studios for being “isolating, very confined spaces not fit for humans”. It’s perhaps also a sign of how expectations have shifted since the days of damp dodgy digs.
The clash of lifestyles between town and gown presents another sort of challenge. Reports include one Bristol resident counting 170 people entering a weekday house party opposite, complete with hired bouncers and a professional sound system. In direct response, The University of Bristol is now paying £25,000 to Avon and Somerset Constabulary for Operation Beech, extra police patrols until 2am on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays with the powers to shut down parties. Newcastle and Northumberland universities are also paying for similar schemes to help keep local residents on side.
Having a popular university that boosts both your status and economy has proven irresistibly seductive for many towns and cities. But many clearly also continue to wrestle with the challenges of adapting to such a gear shift in demographics in a relatively short space of time.
Civic leaders, institutions, developers, locals and students will all need to find more ways to work together, to make sure that being a ‘university town’ remains a badge of honour and delivers results for the benefit of the host location as well as for the nation.
Mike Cheshire is an account director at Camargue