On Student Blocks
Commonplace Newsletter #92
With every passing year there is a little less sky visible in my neighbourhood. New buildings rise and then loom and cast long shadows. When I first moved to this city nearly nine years ago the buildings in my neighbourhood- whether homes, shops, cafes, places of business rose to maybe four stories at most. From virtually every spot you would be able to look in one direction or another and see at least a little patch of countryside, a little glimpse of some distant field or hill that showed a boundary that marked where the city ended and the farmland and green belt began. But this is less visible now, and this trend will only move in one direction in the years to come.
Now I’m observing here, I’m not necessarily complaining. Though I question the inevitability and desirability of progress for the sake of progress, I am not necessarily bemoaning the expanse of my adopted small city categorically. These things happen and they have always happened. It’s the nature of things. What does bother me though- or at least makes me stop and think as I go about my daily walk- is that these new buildings are all of one sort. They are all student accommodation blocks and upmarket student accommodation at that. No houses and flats for locals and residents and key workers that I can see, including accommodation that might encourage recent graduates to remain in the city, just vast high blocks of modernist concrete and steel and glass aimed at attracting ever-more students to stay in the city for up to nine months at a time.
And so as I take a seat on this wall and watch a crew of men with out of town accents sweat in high vis vests and hard hats I begin to wonder about these new blocks. As the builders chat and spread mortar with trowels and line up the latest row of bricks I ask myself what is going on here?
Here’s the thing. I don’t mind students, in principle. I was one myself once and frankly I was almost certainly more trouble than these pleasant seeming late teens with their (I can only assume intentionally) awful outfits and they’ll-look-back-on-them-in-embarrassment haircuts and their by all appearances sunny dispositions. They’re all nice enough, I gather, though the fact that they can apparently only make their way along the pavements in large groups like an infant school crocodile1 rather than doing things solo or in pairs2 strikes me as odd. But anyway. Students are supposed to be a net positive in theory- as well as bringing money into a local economy they should be propping up the live music and art scenes. They should be keeping the culture fresh and energetic. That’s the idea anyway.
Well, this isn’t how it seems to be anymore, at least if my city can be taken to be representative3. See, we have a population of approximately 150,000 people during term time but then during the summer months the vast majority of the 23,000 plus student population go back home to whichever part of the country or world they originally hail from. The population decrease is enough for you to notice certain student heavy neighbourhoods become deserted outside of term times and you somehow see the average age of the population increase overnight. And herein, to my mind, lies the problem. Being so reliant on a by definition transient population strikes me as a risky play, as a strategy that has some obvious fragilities.
Sure, the number caps on how many students can attend a university at a given time has in recent years been lifted meaning enrolments are ever booming, but is this situation guaranteed to last for any real length of time? Tuition is eye-wateringly expensive (9 times more expensive than when I went to university in London back in 2005) and I encounter videos and articles online all the time talking about how university is a waste of time and money in this fast-paced world of ours4. So, is it wise for cities such as mine to seemingly go all in on the idea of student accommodation? These places are not cheap- rather than the very basic halls of residence I spent my first year of university living in- these places all advertise themselves on luxury and the ground floors that I walk past most days are taken up with pristine reception areas and well appointed (and almost always empty) gyms plus coffee shops and pool-table-and-low-sofa recreation areas. Rather than the cheap beer and machine coffee hang outs of my own student days these areas remind me of the sleek minimalism of advertising agencies and laptop class collaborative workspaces.
Now maybe there’s some class consciousness or class anxiety to all of this. I went to a proletarian university and studied a non-vocational subject almost entirely as a means of leaving my hometown and being able to live in the Big Smoke whereas the students here are all clearly solidly middle class, and many more are affluent international students, but still. What happens if the city’s university drops down the rankings and becomes less desirable, what happens if the economy tanks, what happens if enough people decide that university in its current form is not worth the expense? What then?
Will cities such as mine be burdened with these huge purpose-built luxury student blocks that most private renters couldn’t afford to live in? And what does this whole luxury living situation do to the expectations of these young people? If your student dwellings are far better than the accommodation you are likely to find once you are a working graduate, what does this say about our current society’s structure and priorities?
The cynic in me wonders if this is all part of a deliberate attempt to encourage young people to sell themselves into decades of indentured servitude via not just the burden of debt, but by an acclimatisation to lifestyle inflation and becoming comfortable with the management of debt (as opposed to the management of money) at such a young age.
Such a line of thinking becomes more compelling when we consider that the proliferation of these accommodation blocks, and the related surge in what were once family homes being converted into houses of multiple occupancy, has been caused by universities being allowed to be less picky in their admission requirements, which for all of the talk of democratisation has been done as a means of making more money. The basic laws of supply and demand would say that this money-driven widening of the amount of people who study at university will devalue the degrees that they end up earning at the end of it.
So if more and more students sign up for more and more degrees and temporarily live in more and more of these blocks and rack up more and more debt in the process who really benefits? Property developers, landlords and the universities themselves? Because it doesn’t seem to be either the students or the local residents who have to live with the constant noise and of building and the looming new structures which they personally will gain no use or benefit from.
Yes, these thoughts do seem perhaps a little paranoid and negative to be having on a day as sunny and pleasant as today’s but as I sit on this wall and listen to the sounds of circular saws and scaffolders yelling at each other5, I can’t help myself. Will this last? Will this filling of city centres with nothing but student blocks and the housing of more and more of the actual permanent residents in new build edge of town car dependent suburban sprawls be sustainable for much longer? Or is this what most people actually want and is it me who is simply out of step?
I can’t say with any certainty, I just think it’s very odd, is all. And I wonder if I’m the only one.
Until next time,
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When I was in infant school, I remember us all walking to and from the local swimming pool in a two child wide line. In my memory it was more snake like this formation, but I am led to believe that the correct term for this is a crocodile. In any case it’s a nice image and a nice memory.
I hope it doesn’t speak to me having been a Travis Bickle style unhinged loner when I say that when I was university age as well as participating in all sorts of group parties and outings and drinking sessions, I also did plenty of things alone. Solo trips to galleries and museums and cinemas and bars. This seems eminently normal to me, but I suspect these Zoomers would see this as the behaviour of a loner mad man.
I’m not getting into the specifics of my location a) because I gather there are plenty of small cities like mine and so keeping it general makes the piece universal. And b) because I am reticent about providing too much material about my private life even though my pen name is my real name and it wouldn’t take an investigative journalist to find information on me if someone really had a mind to. Also c) in a culture of over sharing I think keeping a little something back and trying to maintain at least a little mystique is important and also fun.
I’m not saying I agree with that assessment as many of the purveyors of that sentiment have vested interests in the notion that university is a waste of time. Namely, they are usually people selling courses and info products and so are trying to denigrate higher education as their product is effectively in competition with that. But my point is that this idea- whether true or not- is a popular sentiment and could well mimetically snowball into something that has a negative and noticeable impact on university enrolment numbers at some point in the near future.
Of all the many trades of construction workers it is always the scaffolders who are by far the loudest- either via their radios or by simply yelling at each other over great distances.