When town meets gown, communities can flourish

First appeared on The Guardian Mortar Board blog on 19 September 2011

Students are an important part of any town, bringing skills and enthusiasm, says Amy Hall

Anyone who has lived in a university town or city will have heard – or maybe uttered themselves – “bloody students“, when being kept awake at night by midweek celebrations, or tripping over rubbish strewn across the pavement.

But there are many people around the UK who will be looking forward to the return of the students to their towns and cities as many community groups and projects get a boost in active members.

Bath Student Community Allotments was borne out of frustration from a group of students on long waiting lists for allotments. They wanted productive gardens but were only around for three years. Starting up in a space at the back of a pub, the group now has use of a plot at Bath City Farm. Members teamed up with the Growing Together project to match students and local residents with unused gardens, increasing their productivity and the relationship between students and other Bath residents.

Local campaign groups can also benefit from students, who often bring with them experience of activism in a student setting. As local anti-cuts groups spring up across the UK, many are taking advantage of their local student populations to strengthen their campaigns, and building on the popularity of campaigns around student fees and cuts to education.

One of these is the anti-cuts network based in Newcastle upon Tyne, which started meeting in January as a coalition between students and other members of the community. It has organised protests against tax havens and a day-long anti-cuts gathering with discussions and skill sharing workshops.

Many societies based in universities, and specifically for students, put a big emphasis on helping people in their local communities. The Cardiff University Student action for refugees (Star) group runs English conversation sessions at a weekly drop-in for refugees and asylum seekers, which in turn helps others to participate more fully in their local community.

Students are also big charity fundraisers, often through Raising and giving (Rag), making thousands of pounds for local, national and international charities. Bristol University’s Rag society has raised more than £40,000 for local charities, including a grant to a community group for yoga and meditation classes for children with severe learning difficulties and paying for a Wii fit for the residents of a retirement home. They raise money through events like ‘jailbreaks’ where teams have 36 hours to get as far away as they can without paying for public transport, bar crawls and a yearly street procession.

It’s not just from the goodness of their hearts that many students get involved with community projects; they are also facing an increasingly competitive jobs market and anything they can do to stand out from other graduates will be an advantage.

Students can bring life to their neighbourhoods and engage with their local communities. They also help the local economy as consumers and a workforce.

Relying on students can be frustrating for groups and projects which need commitment all year round, but when students and non-students work together it can benefit the whole community as different schedules and experiences complement each other.

As an example of the ‘big society’, when both sides of the town and gown divide work together towards community cohesion, life becomes a little easier for everyone.

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