The Future of College Towns in the UK

Depending on the election results, UK college towns of the 2020s might be the preserve of super-wealthy students who travel to and from lectures in taxis.

by Nell Frizzell
Dec 10 2014, 7:34pm

Bristol University. Image via ​OldakQuill

This post was originally published on VICE UK

The large oven cakes, high-vis vests and hot spam sandwiches of Leeds Market have outlived my student life. They outlived my whole generation of students and they may well outlive higher education as we know it today.

It is a strange thing to go back to your university town a decade after first stepping, shaky-boweled and clutching an Argos starter pack, into the sticky halls of residence many of us called home. Whether you swapped the medieval alleyways of the south for grit-gray Northern industrialism, England for Scotland or simply crossed the Pennines, moving to a university town marked the dawn of a new era.

And yet, go back now—after a decade—and if your university city is anything like mine, they'll be ripping it up from the very foundations. Leeds Met became Leeds Beckett, the town hall got swamped by a fishbowl of university plate glass, the University of Leeds admissions center grew a sandwich bar, the flat I overlooked from my first bedroom window became a mormon church and the old BBC building has been replaced by a huge, cuboid, two-pence coin of rusty student flats and a faculty of the arts.

Leeds market. Photo by the author

How will the rest of our student towns look in another ten years? All those cities that tried to replace the clanking, oil-grimed industries destroyed by Thatcherism with the New Labour cash cow of higher education—what does the next decade hold in store for them? How will student loans, tuition fees, immigration, the reduction of public funding and increasing reliance on digital technology shift their very landscape?

While in 2004 it took me four and a half hours to travel from Oxford to Leeds, with one of those soul-stripping stopovers on the windy platforms of Birmingham New Street station, high-speed rail links like HS2 may well make visiting the North no greater a commute from London than Surrey is today. But will it save those  formative relationships that floundered on the rocks of entire terms spent apart? Will students be able to pop home every weekend to visit their 28-year-old boyfriend who works in a skate shop and smokes B&H Silver? Will more hearts go unbroken? Perhaps. But perhaps the 2.2 percent average increase in rail fares we're seeing this year will steadily creep up to render such travel unimaginable to most students.

Come out of the station and the student of ten years time will, no doubt, be met with a forest of new build flats. "More buildings will get knocked down and more flats will be built around the center," Yash, an agent at Samara Properties in Leeds, tells me. Of course, it is building projects like this, along with the accompanying leisure facilities, shopping centers and luxury goods that have turned British universities from seats of learning to economic pessaries—thrust into dwindling university towns to try and halt the yeasty creep of post-industrial decline.

The Roger Stevens building, University of Leeds. Image via ​Ubcule

According to ​a report by Universities UK, for every 100 jobs at universities an additional 117 are created in the wider economy. Forget steel, wool, shipbuilding, coal, dockyards and football—our cities are now feeding off the pockets of students. Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Falmouth and all the rest are topped up with student drinks deals and short term rents. Yash tells me there are 14 estate agents just on the one tiny road that I used to cross to buy my breakfast.

"There seems to be a lot more rich students nowadays," he says. "We've got four bed properties—really expensive ones—and all four tenants have cars. It seems ridiculous. We have a lot of Chinese, Spanish and Greek students. The Chinese students don't mind spending more money. They pay up front, because they don't have people over here to be guarantors."

Which, inevitably, leads us to the question of cash. Will the university towns of the 2020s be the preserve of the super-wealthy, students traveling to lectures in taxis? Maybe not. "There's no evidence to show that," says Nolan Smith, Head of Finance and Investment for the Higher Education Funding Council for England ( ​HEFCE). "The entrance even under the £9,000 ($14,000) fee regime showed that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds continue to want to go into higher education; higher fees have not put them off. That's partly because there are support packages in place—universities themselves provide quite a lot of bursaries and scholarships."

Inside Leeds University's "corridor in the sky." Photo by the author 

Walking past the international supermarkets and Pan-Asian restaurants that skirt Leeds city center, it occurs to me that student internationalism might change significantly. According to ​Universities UK, 13 percent of current undergraduate students and 37 percent of postgraduate students are non-UK domiciled. And in 2012–13, around 44 percent of all non-UK students studying in the UK came from Asia. Project those figures forward and our British university cities could, if we're lucky, become multicultural hubs of language exchange, better food, more money, transferable skills, foreign investment and more interesting supermarkets. 

"I do expect more international students," says Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (​HEPI). "Though the Home Office need to offer a more welcoming approach if we are to meet our full potential on that." If we're lucky, then, the large number of international students will mean more metropolitan university towns. If we're not, the influx of wealthy foreign students to city center flats, jumping the queue with cash deposits and failing to integrate with the local population even more than the current contingent may push local residents further into the suburbs and increase racial tension. 

The National Audit Office ​recently warned that more than half of councils are at risk of financial failure by the end of the decade. While this might not necessarily mean that the golden owls that sit on top of the railings circling Leeds City Centre Library will be sold off to pay the heating bill, it does mean that many of the public services I enjoyed as a student will be increasingly migrated online. 

Doctor's surgeries, housing services, town halls, citizens advice bureaus and tax offices may well become accessed almost entirely digitally. Public swimming pools, libraries, parks, and arts centers, similarly, will be sold off to private investors or simply closed. Which could lead to an even greater divide between students—who look to their institution for many of these services—and local residents, who have nowhere else to turn. It's the old ​town and gown conundrum I became aware of growing up in Oxford. 

Our student towns are an unmarked map of social, economic, educational and environmental change, only really understood when looked at in retrospect, from over our shoulder. 

As well as facilities, what sort of courses may the student of the next decade expect to find? According to their report, Trends in Undergraduate Recruitment, Universities UK observe that there has been "an increase in students applying to subjects in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics group (STEM) over recent years, reflecting an ongoing trend of increased participation in science-related subjects at level three." 

Does this mean no more design students sitting on the steps of H Block, chipping paint off nicotine-stained fingers and talking about the new releases? Not necessarily. "There are signs of a recovery in demand for subjects that showed declines in applications in 2012, such as arts and design, history and mass communications," the report goes on. 

Oh good, you're thinking, more mass communication. That's exactly what journalism, broadcasting and the internet needs. "I think traditional courses will remain popular," says Hillman. "We will need more scientists and engineers, but we will also need more people to help us understand the world, which means more social scientists, linguists and people skilled in the arts. The best vocationally-oriented courses are often those that are co-designed with employers, so I hope we'll see more of those too."

Will the student towns of the next decade be preparing a workforce for a life of gainful employment, or allowing students of all backgrounds the time and space to become good at, simply, thinking? Is the rush towards vocational subjects evidence of an arts sector in crisis, or simply a sign that Michael Gove got his way after all? 

We can't know yet. Too much depends on the result of next year's general election; on how, if ever, we climb out of recession; on the future of local industry. Whether we will follow the German model and abolish tuition fees or take an American approach—where fees often hit five digits—depends not just on our politicians but the businesses, policy groups and researchers who maneuver them. 

"Student loans were introduced 24 years ago, but the original rationale for them remains," explains Hillman. "If we are to have large numbers of young people living and studying away from home, and if there is to be enough money to educate them properly, then a loan system is close to inevitable. Other countries avoid loans but they typically send fewer people to university, don't cover students' maintenance costs or expect students to pay upfront, which limits access. Our loan system, which the OECD argue is ahead of other countries' support systems, allows the sector to continue expanding."

Our student towns are an unmarked map of social, economic, educational and environmental change, only really understood when looked at in retrospect, from over our shoulder. In my uneasy moments, I imagine the Leeds of 2024 as a binary split between students in wide-neck pastel shirts, driving their own cars and preparing for a career at KPMH, and a local community shuffled between Poundland Workfare and their distant suburban homes. It is the social divisions of a post-recession, post-austerity country laid across the granite and stone of a once-thriving industrial center. It is grim.

But maybe it will all work out. Maybe better transport links, investment in the public sector and an appreciation of higher education as more than just an economic leg-up and better digital access will bring the British university town to the forefront of international admiration. It will bring the country back into the same boat. It will create a generation of dancing, drinking, thinking citizens.

Or maybe, as Larkin said, what will survive of us is love. And hot spam sandwiches. 

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