After a sternly worded sonnet penned by a St Andrews local appeared at the Freshers’ Week plant sale, it seems that town and gown relations are souring. Highlighting the increase in HMOs and students treating the town like “their private playpen”, the poem demands “no more growth in student numbers”.
Credit: Victoria Hunt, facebook.com
In a way, it is hard not to sympathise with the local community. From Raisin Weekend to May Dip, students at St Andrews have garnered a reputation for anti-social behaviour and revelry that occasionally even drags the university’s name into disrepute. Ahead of Raisin in 2019, a police warning was issued cautioning students not to engage in any inappropriate conduct or cause any disruption during the infamous two-day event.
The sonnet is also correct about the growth of student numbers. In the 2013/14 academic year, there were around 2,500 entrants, but in 2017/18, this figure had risen to 2,835. Student numbers have continued to rise since then, placing considerable strain on a very limited stock of housing in St Andrews. In the wake of both the 2020 and 2021 results fiascos, St Andrews was forced to accommodate students in Leuchars and Dundee and asked entrants to cancel their accommodation contracts.
Given the overwhelming demand for student housing, it is no surprise that property prices in St Andrews are well above the national average. This has made the town increasingly unaffordable for many locals, with disastrous consequences. The local population has decreased by 40% since the 1990s as St Andrews becomes a less attractive place to live.
This isn’t a problem that is unique to St Andrews. Across the UK, many universities have relentlessly pursued expansion, aiming to attract lucrative international students. The University of Glasgow, for example, has invested an eye-watering £1 billion in extending its campus.
However, the poem does demonise students to a worrying extent. Arguably, it is only a minority that treat the town like a “private playpen”. Many consider St Andrews to be a home away from home. We make an effort to use local businesses, in addition to fundraising for charities across Fife. Students organise beach clean-ups, walk locals’ dogs, participate in community gardening projects, and have recently come together to help in the search of a vulnerable missing person. In short, many of us care deeply about the local community and are grateful for the opportunity to live in such a beautiful, historic place.
Although it may be hard for this poet to acknowledge, students are indispensable to the town. Figures continue to prove that the university’s economic impact is particularly significant. In 2016/17, it boosted the local economy by £268.6 million and provided 4,260 jobs. In addition, during the height of the pandemic, we helped sustain the town’s economy. The St Andrews economy is heavily dependent on tourism – it is estimated that it contributes £180 million to the Fife economy. Students alone could never make up this shortfall, but the university community came together to do all they could to support local independent businesses.
The description of students as “passing actors on the stage” may have a kernel of truth to it. The reality is that once our degrees are over, we have no choice but to move on in order to further our careers or academic studies. But St Andrews, and its influence on our lives, is not so easily forgotten. With 10% of graduates marrying each other, some couples return to have their weddings at St Salvator’s Chapel. To reduce us to “passing actors” in this way insults the role which St Andrews plays in our most formative years and continues to play throughout the rest of our lives.
The sonnet’s animosity may be somewhat unwarranted. Yet it does make some important points. If St Andrews is to continue to be the town we all know and love, harmony between students and locals must be preserved. And if that means treating it less like a “playpen” and more like a second home, so be it.