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You might feel differently if you’re one of the unfortunates stuck behind the young man who, in time-honoured student fashion, is trying to pay for a bag of chips or a pint of lager with a dog-eared debit card. That’s understandable. But it really can’t be over-stated that the towns and cities with universities have much reason to be grateful for the influx of students each September.
The boost to the night-time economy is the most obvious, indeed in all but the largest of the regional cities it’s striking how much quieter the pubs and clubs get after the students head home in mid-summer. The desire of large employers and investors to locate in places that have a ready supply of skilled graduates across different skills and language groups is well-recognised too.
But the student economy serves the wider city in other more subtle ways too. Not least of these is architecture: some of the most striking buildings in cities, the ones that are guaranteed a few seconds in the show-reel of iconic images, are university buildings: the redbrick tower and the domes of the University of Birmingham; the Wills Memorial Building in Bristol. To that you can add exciting new buildings such as the jewel-like Business School at Manchester Metropolitan and the Rose Bowl at Leeds Met. They move the city on.
Then there’s student accommodation. We’re in an age now where the classic Young Ones-style accommodation is becoming a thing of the past. Indeed, certain councils where housing supply is tight now have specific policies forbidding student house-shares as they try to prioritise young families. Large-scale blocks of student living have been the trend for a decade or so now; it’s one of the few parts of commercial property that didn’t slow in the downturn and it’s still going strong.
True, the student blocks aren’t always the prettiest of buildings, but there are some that catch the eye: Downing’s striking Parkway Gate by the Mancunian Way in Manchester being one. And the business they provide for retailers and service providers in what could otherwise be moribund parts of cities is a godsend. We’re also seeing some buildings that have served one life as an office block being recycled as student flats, so it’s a sustainable thing too.
Hand-in-hand with the boom in international students, there’s also an increasing trend towards quality with some operators charging a premium for their product. The parents of students far from home, already paying top dollar for their education, might feel their offspring stand the best chance with all the perks: en-suite studios with regular cleaning, all bills included, ultra-fast broadband, large flat-screen TVs and a 24-hour gym. More than likely, we’d all have spent less time in the pub in our own student days with that sort of offering. Times change though.
And, of course, businesses in student towns and cities benefit not just from the production line of graduates who stay around, but from the ongoing availability of smart people looking for part-time or short-term work while they’re studying.
As far as we can see, anything that increases the flow of people, of different ideas and cultures, in any way, enriches a place. So next time there’s students clogging up the bar when there’s a big match on the pub TV, take a deep breath and remember that we’re lucky to have them. Honestly.