Newspapers love to produce stories about town and gown conflict. There’s something about the caricatures of over-privileged students clashing with the stuck-in-their-ways locals that tabloids can’t resist. However, as a County Durham local, I’ve grown up with this conflict and I can see it from both sides now that I’m a student here. Especially in the time of Covid-19, students are unfairly getting the blame for the actions of their university and government.
Communications from the University have stressed the importance of social responsibility to protect the wider Durham community. However, there is only so much students can do to prevent transmission when they are living in households of 10 or more, and are still expected to attend face to-face teaching. A financial and political decision was made by universities and the government to encourage students to return to campus.
The result of that calculation was always that cases were going to shoot up, no matter how careful we all were. The rise in cases in Durham has caused fear in the community. Manifesting that fear into asking questions of those in power is crucial but the student-bashing I’ve seen in Durham is pure scapegoatism.
Back in May, the Parish Council wrote a letter to the University complaining about students returning to their houses for exam season, suggesting they were only coming back for house parties. Elected officials are meant to represent their constituents, not designate one group as a problem.
The suspicion of students runs deep in the community. Take one scroll through the Facebook group ‘Gripe & Grumble & News’ and you’ll see Durham students being blamed every time there is a large group of people on the streets – local young people exist too!
Locals are not immune from criticism and I’ve seen them flout guidelines too. When I see a big group of older men sitting at the same table in a pub I think – wow, they must be lonely, I can understand why they wanted to break the rules. For freshers living with complete strangers, the social isolation is even more intense. What happened to the solidarity of earlier this year and why have we started blaming each other?
The recent outbreak of student-local tension does not exist in a vacuum. Whenever I speak to locals about Durham University students, I get all of the predictable responses: ‘posh,’ ‘stuck up,’ and ‘entitled,’ which they then qualify with ‘not you, Charlotte!’ Part of me wants to agree with them after reports of discrimination against northern students at the University. Although it is not true of most Durham students, the reason why antagonism is so high owes a lot to the University management.
Expansion in student numbers is going beyond what is feasible for a city the size of Durham. 4,000 have been added in the last decade and the University masterplan proposes another 4,000 before 2027. This, in addition to £8,000 per year college rents, has exploded the private rental market in Durham, pricing local people out.
Growing up in County Durham, the University had a more positive reputation in the community. I was on the Supported Progression scheme, which offered disadvantaged local students improved access to Durham University. This has since been axed.
Scheduled cuts to support staff under BPR2 proposals would damage one of the main ways that the university contributes to the community through employment opportunities. The social contract between the city and its University is being stretched to a breaking point. The second lockdown means that the importance of being good neighbours has never been greater.
Both students and locals are guinea pigs in the experiment of in-person teaching during a pandemic. The decision to attempt a ‘new normal’ was taken over the heads of both groups and it is they who must suffer the consequences. It is now even more important that we lobby our University to be responsible in the community, both during Covid-time and beyond.
Illustration: Amber Conway