Update: meeting scheduled for Wednesday 27th June, at the Salvation Army on Chapel Street, Leamington Spa. 6pm - go along and speak up for the rights of students!
Well, first of all because my housemate (who, incidentally, is not a student) had exceptionally loud (and really awful) music on at 6am for some unknown reason. Secondly because today happens to be my last Monday working for Warwick SU. But thirdly, dear readers, because of a phone call we received this morning from a Leamington Courier journalist, who informed us that some residents in South Leamington have called a “General Meeting” because apparently they feel that there are too many students living in Leamington Spa and evidently they want to do something about it.
Not even midday, and already my blood pressure is climbing. I’ll tell you why. I am sick and tired of having to defend students, and their right to live wherever they choose. Except actually, it’s not wherever they chose, which makes the scapegoating and accusations of local residents even more infuriating. Students are bound by financial constraints, by bus routes, by convenience, by the types of houses they live in. Over the years, this has resulted in higher concentrations of students living in certain areas of South Leam – George Street, Russell Terrace, Brunswick and so on. In recent months, certain residents have become very irate about this so-called “studentification” and evidently they have enough time on their hands not just to complain about it in the press, but to call a general meeting. Oh, for a life of leisure and grumbling.
I do not believe that students should be treated as a discrete group when it comes to community living. As a Union we champion our students to develop, make their own choices, and make a positive impact on the world around them. We are not there to babysit, we are not the fun police, we are not a neighbourhood watch. And I’m not going to sit here and pretend that everything’s ok – because yes, higher concentrations of students does mean that there is a lot of rubbish going to the tip, it does mean noise late at night sometimes. However these are issues that can be dealt with – we talk about them constantly in our communication with students, community forums, councillors and so on – and very few complaints about noise etc. have been received this year. Sometimes the actions of a minority are interpreted as being representative of the majority, which is simply untrue.
More importantly, noise, rubbish and so on are not issues that are unique to students. I lived next door to a 30-something year-old couple with two kids in my third year on Brunswick Street; I was kept up all night sometimes from the arguments and on occasion loud music. But my response was not “oh goodness, this means there are too many couples in the local area, we should oppose them as a group”. That would have been daft. Similarly students are a diverse group who should not be referred to as a homogenous collective – or treated as such.
Students live off-campus in all kinds of communities, with all kinds of neighbours. It is their often their first experience of independent living, of interaction with neighbours, of contributing to the local community. So when students are constantly told that they are not wanted, that there are too many of them, that they turn neighbourhoods into wastelands and ghettos, that they should go somewhere else, I get pretty angry – because if that’s what they learn about community life, what they glean from their first experience of independent living, then how are they meant to become good neighbours and responsible citizens? Simple answer: they’re not. They’re going to learn to be distrustful. They’re going to be reticent about talking to their neighbours for fear of being stereotyped straight off the bat.
Luckily, most students contribute a lot to the local community – through volunteering, community ventures, campaigning, general involvement – and in doing so they encounter residents who acknowledge and appreciate their contribution and commitment. We in turn to do our best to support students who wish to do good – our most recent venture is our newly revamped Moving Out Guide and advice on “Leave Leam Tidy”. It’s through interactions with those people that students learn to become good neighbours and responsible citizens – it is regrettable that this process may be soured by less amenable residents.
The calling of a general meeting by Leamington residents is not only an over-reaction, it is both pointless and upsetting. What are the residents planning to do – wield pitchforks and flaming torches to drive students out of Leamington? Whatever their plan, I doubt it will work. Students love being close to their friends, they love picnics in Jephson Gardens on sunny days. They love the shopping, the restaurants and the nightlife. They love Bath Place and the Churches. Leamington is an amazing place to live, and I was sad when I had to move from there. Students have made their homes there for years and will continue to do so.
The reaction is upsetting for a number of reasons – tarring students with the same brush, ignoring the multiple social and economic benefits that students bring to Leamington, assuming that students can be treated as “non-residents”, as unequal citizens. If there was a general meeting called by residents who felt that there were too many Indian residents in South Leamington, it is likely that there would be a national outcry. Students do not deserve to be treated with such utter contempt – especially by residents who probably have children and grandchildren who will also want to go to University. If their relatives were collectively rounded upon by residents of their home-away-from-home, what would they say? That they deserve to be stigmatised because they are young, living away from home, working for a better future for themselves? I doubt it.
As Higher Education undergoes a paradigm shift, students are under more financial and personal pressure. The last thing they need is a barrage of bad press and ill will from their neighbours. It is shameful.
Whilst sadly it is unlikely that I will be around for the general meeting if it happens, as I am embarking on my teacher training in a week’s time, I hope there are residents – students and non-students alike – who will have the good grace and common sense to defend students as citizens. Being in Higher Education does not make a person exempt from fair and equal treatment in their community. The residents calling for this meeting would do well to remember that.