In August 2018 a petition called: Address the student crisis in Bath began to circulate, calling on the Council to tackle problems caused by the huge influx of students to Bath.
It was later critiqued on the website of the Bath Time student magazine, in an article titled:
“Student Crisis” Or Students In Crisis?
This is a reply to that critique.
I was interested to read Francesco Masala’s critique of the petition: Address the student crisis in Bath – a petition calling for the Council to tackle issues arising from the influx of university students to Bath. As the author of the petition and a former mature student at both Bath’s universities, I thought I would give a response.
Students make up over a quarter of Bath’s population, a factor which impacts heavily on other social groups, local communities, housing needs and surroundings. As has been discovered in studies of other university cities, many of these impacts are not positive.
Concerning such problems, Francesco would agree that a respectful dialogue between students and Bath’s longer-term residents is needed. After all, he calls for solidarity over certain injustices that should move us both. But he launches into his critique of the petition without offering any empathetic thought as to how communities like mine are compelled to protest over the kinds of issues raised. Consider the sense of powerlessness we feel when, for example, we are unable to prevent further student blocks being added to our community in Twerton: an area that’s filling up with more than its fair share of these overbearing badly built hulks. Or, when we can’t stop the continual loss of family houses to student HMOs in a deprived area where many agencies are set up specifically to support families.
Agencies like The Hut Nursery in Twerton were set up to support families, but now the wider Twerton area faces losing hundreds of family houses to HMOs (see here).
Nor does Francesco consider the practical constraints in writing a petition like this. There are a lot of points to cover. If the text contains too many qualifiers showing that the campaign isn’t about blaming students personally, it becomes too bulky to be effective. I daresay the wording has some shortcomings, just as I don’t claim to get everything right. However, Francesco finishes with an endnote appeal: “stop calling it a student crisis,” without suggesting any alternative titles for the petition.
Well the title is editable and I’m open to suggestions. Clearly it must include the word “student” to help people understand what it’s about. And the reality is that there IS a crisis related to the huge numbers of students in Bath. Even the homeless seem likely to be affected by the influx. The greater profitability of converting houses into student HMOs, combines with the reticence of many landlords to rent to housing benefit claimants – thereby reducing the availability of the private rental sector to low income people.
None of this is the fault of the students; in fact, students themselves get ripped off by the student crisis. A private student flat in the Twerton Mill complex will set you back £170 per week – around £2000 a year more expensive than student accommodation on campus. The University of Bath could have built more campus accommodation but instead opted to construct new teaching blocks to swell student numbers even more. The high salaries of the university’s top brass and its early embrace of £9000 tuition fees, prod one into suspecting that profitability is the driving force behind all the expansion.
So yes, the students come away with a bad deal. And yes, there are some causes where students and long-term residents could campaign together. But communities need to be able to speak the plain truth, that there are very real problems related to out-of-control student numbers – and to use language that clearly communicates the gravity of the situation. I expect that the discourse can be tweaked somewhat to cater for student sensitivities, but there will always be those who object to the semantics of what has been written.
After some comment from the student magazine editor Glen McCalpine, I decided to change the petition title to: “Address the crisis related to student numbers in Bath”. I hoped this would make the petition seem less like it was blaming students personally for the problems.
The suggestion that it be called: “Address the housing crisis in Bath” I rejected on two grounds:
1) “Housing crisis” means different things to different people. So that particular title wouldn’t explain what the petition was about or focus attention sharply on the issues we wanted to campaign over.
2) The issues raised contribute to, but aren’t caused by a housing crisis. They are caused by the influx of students coupled with the propensity of landlords and developers to seek the highest profits etc. The petition asks for the causes to be addressed.