Uni growth leaves Exeter divided

Exeposé News Issue 662, Front Page and Exeposé News online (5 December 2016) 

Rising student numbers are making parts of Exeter “unbalanced” and “unsustainable,” a local residents’ association has warned – yet according to a recent Exeposé survey, many local businesses actually want student numbers to grow.

Over 19,000 students are currently enrolled at the University’s Exeter campuses. The figure has grown by 19% over the past five years – and Exeposé has investigated how these rising numbers have affected students’ relationship with the city.

In a survey sent to almost 200 local businesses and organisations, we asked what respondents made of Exeter’s student population, and whether they thought the University should continue to grow. The results suggested most businesses would not be opposed to having more students in the city.

Asked whether they preferred dealing with student or non-student customers, an overwhelming majority (74%) of the 39 respondents said they had no bias, while 21% said they preferred non-students, and 5% would rather serve student customers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no respondents thought an increase in students would be detrimental to business. On the contrary, 76% viewed increasing student numbers as either “positive” or “very positive” for their business or organisation. Meanwhile, 59% thought that if student numbers were to fall, their business would suffer.

54% of respondents said student numbers in Exeter were ‘about right’, and asked whether the University should continue to increase its student numbers, only 11% answered ‘no.’ “Generally for my business, the more students the better!” a spokesperson for Beerbox added, while another business commented: “I miss the students when they are not here. I like living and working in a student city,” and Rivka Jacobs said students “bring energy and diversity to the city.”

40% of respondents believed the University should continue to grow, while 30% were “unsure” about this growth, and 19% had no opinion.

The question of growth was a divisive one.

“The city seems to come to life when students return but there is obviously a fine balance between that and students taking over the town,” one anonymous business commented. “I personally think that the university has set too high a target in terms of student numbers. The number of new student accommodations popping up all over the city is a bit worrying.”

“It’s not the total number of students, it’s the concentration in a couple of areas that creates issues,” the Vic pub explained. The pub is “only able to open in term time, because of seasonal occupancy of student houses,” a spokesperson added.

This concern was shared by residents’ association Exeter St James Forum. During university holidays, the area “becomes a ghost town in several places,” Membership Officer Robyn Connett explained. Earlier this year, ESJF lost a campaign to prevent more student accommodation being built in the St James area as part of the proposed Football Club development. The judge’s decision went against the group’s Neighbourhood Plan – and ESJF described the case as a “profound disappointment.”

Exeposé contacted ESJF to learn more about residents’ views of students – and learned that while the association is in favour of having students in the community, recent growth has meant that students are now dominating the area.

“We recognise that from an economic point of view, the University is an extremely important part of the city,” Connett said. Stressing: “we’re certainly not against students,” she added: “what we want is a balanced community, and St James is no longer a balanced community.” ESJF is against rising student numbers in St James, “simply because it’s becoming more and more imbalanced, and a community just can’t thrive on that,” she said. “It’s not sustainable.”

“It’s really the threat to sustainable community that we’re so desperately against,” she continued. “We certainly have our problems with some students, with noise at night and rubbish – but we know that there are a lot of students who are not like that, and who do a great deal for the community. So it certainly isn’t against students per se – it’s the sheer numbers.”

In Exeposé’s survey, only 21% of respondents said they had experienced what they would call antisocial behavior from Exeter students. Incidents reported ranged from students “in a fast food chain, throwing drinks at people” and having “zero bar etiquette” to walking in large groups around town and “smashing wing mirrors and being extremely loud on a regular basis” in the Mount Pleasant area. One anonymous respondent added: “Saw a group of students walking along in their underpants on Saturday night – bit shocking for my 10-year-old daughter!”

In a Freedom of Information request to the University, Exeposé found that 69 students have been disciplined in the past three academic years as a result of noise complaints received. In this time, students have caused 707 noise complaints to be registered with the University’s Community Liaison Officer Rory Cunningham. However, the percentage of students subject to a noise enquiry has remained extremely low, reaching a maximum of 1.5%.

“The University values its good relationship with local residents and I am happy to say that the majority of Resident Associations I liaise with are very positive about the contribution of students and the University,” Cunningham told Exeposé.

“Many are simply keen to achieve a balance of residents in their community and they acknowledge that a small minority of students can sometimes create a negative perception for the whole student body.”

St James Forum may not be against students in general – but rising numbers have left some residents wary of staying in the area. “Since the football club decision went against us, there have been some really good public-spirited, permanent members of the community who have moved away,” Connett said. “I think they just felt that there was nothing left, really. It’s beyond saving. I hope it isn’t like that.”

“We’re desperate to create a community including students, but not dominated by them,” she said. ESJF has “always enjoyed our relationship with the University,” she told Exeposé, “but it’s just become too much. Imagine: if you’re living on a street full of students and you’re a family with young children… where are the other children for them to play with? It’s not good for a community to be dominated by any one age group.”

Exeter Student Volunteers told Exeposé more about how students are engaging with the community. With almost 1,400 members, ESV runs 13 projects in Exeter, ranging from events for young carers and helping secondary school pupils with homework, to dog walking and having afternoon tea with elderly residents. Their work “is really important as it creates a link between the University and the local community, giving students the opportunity to connect to the community and help make a difference,” ESV presidents Sophie Moreton and Harriet Smith explained.

“Often students do not have much interaction with the local community which can create a barrier between the university and local residents.

“Through volunteering, we can help change the perceptions of both students and local residents and therefore bring them closer together,” they said. “I always strongly recommend getting to know your neighbours as soon as possible,” Cunningham agreed.

“Students who get on first name terms with their neighbours have a much more positive experience – and if problems or queries arise, neighbours are much more likely to discuss challenges directly if they have received an introduction.”

survey

>>View original Exeposé News story>>
>>View Issue 662 at issuu.com>>

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