If student numbers in cities fall as more young people choose to stay at home while they study, will we really be better off?
Anyone who has ever been woken up at 3am by fancy dress-clad students brandishing traffic cones, or weaved their way around the takeaway boxes and puddles of vomit that decorate the pavements of Britain’s university cities, probably cheered this morning when it was announced that the UK’s student population is expected to drop by 14% by the end of the decade and that almost half of students will live at home with their parents by 2020.
But while the news may mean a better night’s sleep for some, the prospect of student populations dropping by as much as 50% in some cities is a depressing one.
Students are a huge boost to a city’s economy. Loans are there to be spent, and millions of pounds are poured into cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs, clubs and shops in university cities every year. Many of these businesses are also staffed by students. With the majority being under 21 and willing to work long shifts for the lower level of minimum wage, business owners can save nearly £1 an hour in wages by employing students.
Councils benefit from the large number of students who use public transport, as do small independent stores, which profit from being more accessible to those on foot than the big supermarkets.
Demand for student housing creates a profitable rental market in university towns, too, which pushes house prices up and can make areas more desirable. Home insurer LV=, which carried out the research into falling student numbers, predicts that some cities could become “ghost towns” in the next 10 years as more students choose to live at home.
Newcastle, Sheffield and Lincoln are likely to be hit hardest, while Nottingham, Swansea, Stoke-on-Trent and Portsmouth are expected to lose up to 40% of their student populations. These areas are likely to face a drop in house prices as the rental market dwindles, a rise in empty properties – and a corresponding rise in vandalism and crime.
But these cities will not just miss the economic bonuses – students bring social ones, too. Despite the stereotype of drunken layabouts, universities are largely populated by intelligent and considerate young people, many of whom volunteer in the community, raise money for charity and help out in local schools. Volunteers from the University of Sheffield’s Raising and Giving society raised more than £163,000 in the last academic year, with £133,000 going to local charities. If student numbers halve in the city, as expected, those charities will lose a major source of income.
University cities have a vitality and youthful atmosphere not seen in other areas, where the UK’s ageing population dominates. While those students who choose to stay at home may help to redistribute the balance in rural regions and towns such as Milton Keynes and Swindon, the places that once buzzed with student life will fall silent and empty.
We can only hope that the tripling of tuition fees will not deal an economic blow to Britain’s big cities in the form of a student exodus. After all, a few misplaced traffic cones are worth the huge benefits students can bring.