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Debate: Do the University and its students ultimately help or harm Edinburgh?

Sunday, 4 November, 2018 by

Writing: Louise Jastrzebski & Iz Guis

Illustration: Louise Jastrzebski

Help: Louise Jastrzebski

As one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world, and with the biggest student population in Scotland, the significant influence that the University of Edinburgh holds over the city itself is unquestionable. Along with an institution of this size comes an abundance of students – mostly young people who are an integral piece in the making of Edinburgh’s identity. The capital’s reputation of being a politically engaged, prosperous, and cultural city is in large part due to the influence of the university and its students.

The impact of students on a city – in any case – stretches across most, if not all, aspects of general living; the picture of an Edinburgh without a university would be very different from the one we are so familiar with. Students increase the population by a predictable amount at consistent times of the year, therefore allowing the local government and authorities to plan ahead for provision of essential services. Students’ high demand for housing plays seamlessly into the hands of Edinburgh landlords, and indeed with university-owned accommodation, providing steady revenue for the housing market. Every other part of daily life for students has some positive impact on the economy: the weekly food shop, trying out a new independent café, buying textbooks from Blackwell’s – all small transactions helping Edinburgh’s traders to thrive. Edinburgh’s large student population of around 40,000 most definitely makes a difference. Those who take on part-time work further boost the economy, notably during the Fringe: a highly distinguished and massively lucrative event for Edinburgh, in which the university and its students have a considerable involvement.

Areas of town like Cowgate, for example, will most likely be dominated by students – a huge target audience for Edinburgh’s pubs, clubs and bars – on any day of the week. While Glasgow may be more of a regular spot for touring artists, Edinburgh certainly has a keen target audience for gigs, DJs, events and so on. The quality and variety of nightlife in the city is largely down to its student population, who manage to keep Edinburgh lively even during exam season. Of course, entertainment for students is by no means limited to nights out. Music and theatre groups, sports teams, among many others give a general boost to the culture of the city – maintaining its bustling atmosphere, most notably during the tourist low season.

Edinburgh’s influx of students fundamentally increases the city’s cultural DNA. When rocking up in September, non-local students bring their opinions, ideas and experiences from across Scotland, the UK and the world. An institution of this size gives individuals a platform to present new ideas to society, enact change, and an opportunity to listen and engage with others in a way they haven’t been able to before. Students’ capability to acquire new knowledge, inspiration and creativity helps to keep Edinburgh blooming all year round. Both those who remain in Edinburgh after graduation and those who are fleeting residents leave behind a permanent mark and give a permanent voice to young people in a richly historical city.

The juxtaposition of Edinburgh’s old buildings with modern developments in Quartermile display the harmony between the city’s historical roots and its innovative contemporary air. This example mirrors Edinburgh’s relations with students. Edinburgh University is an essential pillar, upholding the city to which it is inextricably interconnected, and its student population is part of its lifeblood.

Harm: Iz Gius

In many ways, it is impossible to separate the University of Edinburgh from the city itself. University buildings are scattered across all ends of the city, as are student accommodation and flats. The varsity rugby match is held at Murrrayfield, along with Scottish home games. The university and the city have become intertwined in the 400 years plus that they have grown together. And yet, there is still a significant divide between the locals and students and faculty, and this divide furthers the exclusion – financially, culturally, and physically – of Edinburgh residents not affiliated with the university.

Edinburgh is a financially divided city, marked both by affluence and significant poverty. On average, household incomes are 9% above the Scottish national average, and yet, one in five households in Edinburgh live on incomes below the poverty threshold. The city ranks in the top Scottish quartile for incomes, but also the bottom Scottish quartile for indicators of poverty. These figures demonstrate the considerable inequality in Edinburgh, which is furthered by the presence of university students. University of Edinburgh students, on average, are some of the wealthiest in the UK. 66% of first year students at Edinburgh were self-financed – that is, they did not need to take out loans – the eighth highest percentage in the UK. 33.6% of students come from private schools. The affluence of University of Edinburgh students, and the city’s image as a center of education and cosmopolitanism, masks significant inequality and poverty. The 17,600 young people living in low income households in Edinburgh must face significant barriers in order to join the university community – only 4.1% of the student population comes from deprived areas.

Further, the presence of students rises rent prices and further excludes and marginalizes local residents. Rent prices in Edinburgh have risen by an appalling 40% in the last seven years, well above inflation rates; compared to a rise in incomes by only 8.1% for the poorest 50% of workers, these rising rent prices disproportionately affect Edinburgh’s poor. The rising rent prices are no doubt due to the presence of students, who ensure a high and growing demand for properties each year, despite a limited supply. Further, the need to build student housing to accommodate University of Edinburgh students leads to the destruction of important features of the city. The Save Leith Walk campaign is just one example of how developers, eager to benefit off of the wealthy students attracted to the university, pay no regard to historical landmarks and community staples.

The University of Edinburgh is deeply connected with the city itself, and yet the university and its students play a significant role in sustaining inequality, poverty, and exclusion among local residents. The university has a responsibility to work with residents to tackle these structural issues, instead of glossing them over an effort to attract new students and maintain its reputation. Unless the university becomes truly integrated with the city, without harmful power dynamics and condescending eyes, it will be committing a great injustice.

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