It’s a month or so into the semester, everyone is settling back into the pace of student life, and it becomes important to ask the question: do university students actually contribute positively to city life?
Of course, the economic boost to local businesses of 70,000 students cannot be discounted, even if we understand that typically stingy students are more likely to be spending in cheaper, large-scale corporate brands. Aside from this though, Edinburgh, like most universities, sees an inevitable tension between the itinerant students and local residents, who may resent the imposition of the university and impacts of the student invasion on their daily lives.
The negative impacts are usually directed towards the university as an institution, for example with university expansion threatening community buildings in Leith, or with the real impact of student accommodation affecting local housing availability and rent prices. So, perhaps it is not students individually causing the negative impact, but are we having any positive impact?
From my personal experience, I have seen few genuine signs of university student’s genuine involvement in local issues.
The problem here seems to be the intrinsic duality of university life: the paradox of building a life in a city, only to return to your “real home” for months at a time over the holidays, and often leaving the city forever after graduation. Perhaps this is just my perspective as a first year, who has not yet had time to fully engage with the city, but looking at the student world it can feel insular when compared to the city around us. Much of our time and effort is spent on activities, societies and friends found through the university, rather than becoming involved in the local community. Just look around at the way many students act around town. Walking blindly past the many homeless asking for change on the way to the pub, ignoring the countless for rent signs springing up due to a lack of rent caps, littering roads with the plastic remainders of £3 meal deals.
We choose our favourite independent coffee shops and cute vintage stores, deluding ourselves into thinking that this is a sign of true engagement with our semi-temporary location, when in fact much of our life is experienced within the university bubble. This is beginning to sound truly cynical, but it is worth wondering how many of the 70,000 students in Edinburgh are involved in community projects or commit themselves to social justice issues. I don’t even think that students being callous or uncaring is the problem, simply that few choose to share their time with local projects. There is no shortage of food banks, shelters or charity shops to volunteer in, or Edinburgh-centric campaigns around community buildings, homelessness and local issues -students simply choose other campaigns… The historical links between students and activism is still strong, as demonstrated by the range of charitable and voluntary societies and activities promoted by the university and within the student union. The main problem is that students often choose ideologically grand global campaigns – all well and good, but without considering related work in their own locale. The problem is perhaps exacerbated by the long holidays- many projects require long term commitment, which is difficult to give if you are returning home every couple of months. Students may also be more committed to issues in the area they grew up, where their families are based and they have personally seen the impacts of problems left unaddressed.
However, this is no excuse. Our university city is our home for four years, so we should take action, and situate ourselves here seriously. As students we have far more free time than the average local resident, and we should use it to consider how the issues we care about are being played out in Edinburgh, then rectifying it wherever possible. It’s time for us all to: “think global, act local”.