Studentification in Exeter

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03 February 2015

Town vs. gown? The impact of ‘studentification’ on university towns

by Melanie Nowicki, former Intern – Families, Work and Welfare Policy

Here at Citizens Advice we spent some time last year thinking about the housing crisis and considering the debate. It was clear that there was a problem but the experiences of staff, volunteers and clients across the country didn’t always reflect the media coverage.

It seemed that the housing crisis felt very different in different places. We set about using our front-line experience to inform the national debate – by exploring problems through bureaux we could really understand the problems to ensure that we can help policy-makers and legislators find the right solutions.

There has been a growing concern in recent years that university towns are seeing the economic and social character of their local areas change drastically due to ever-rising student populations; a process termed ‘studentification’ by Darren Smith, Professor of Geography at the University of Loughborough. [1]

In Exeter, one of the research sites in a wider collaborative project between the Families, Welfare and Work team here at Citizens Advice and eight bureaux across the country, the growing student population has certainly had an effect on the city’s geography.

A short stroll from the local bureau reveals the recent trend for constructing purpose built student accommodation (PBSA). We wanted to understand more about such developments and what they mean for a city, its community and its students.

Over 12% of Exeter’s relatively small population are students. The university is the city’s largest employer; its employees and students undoubtedly bring prosperity to the area but high student numbers have inevitably distorted the local housing market.

According to Exeter City Council, more than 70% of known rental properties are occupied solely by students. Larger family homes tend to be divided up into houses of multiple occupation (HMOs), prioritising student over family needs. Higher demands for rented properties created by an increasing student population inevitably pushes up house prices, and local residents face increasing housing costs whilst remaining on below national average salaries [in Exeter house prices are on average nearly 10 times more than average annual incomes].

Local residents in areas of Exeter with a particularly high student population have also expressed concerns around not only the social impact of studentification but also increasing demand for shared accommodation.

A respondent to a public consultation reported that they felt that the character of their local area was changing for the worse, stating that the HMOs near her home were:

“A constant source of noise and rubbish pollution and at times of the year relegate parts of the community either to slums or ghost towns…They have no stake or interest in the community.”

She and other participants felt that their local areas had fallen victim to the ‘student ghettoisation’ of particular parts of the city, losing their original character and sense of community cohesion. For example, residents of the Pennsylvania area of Exeter have seen the closure of their local pub during university holiday periods due to the absence of the mainly student clientele.

It is worth reflecting that community bias against students appears almost indistinguishable from the wider concern about shared accommodation for young single people.

Solutions to the economic and social concerns that studentification brings to university towns have often centred on changing student accommodation patterns through investment in PBSA.

In Exeter, the City Council adopted a target that 75% of any future increase in the student population should be accommodated in PBSA rather than HMOs, a target they met in 2012/13. It has been hoped that an increase in PBSA will free up larger houses to be used by families rather than as HMOs, and that areas particularly affected by studentification will benefit as students move out of those areas into purpose built accommodation in less residential parts of the city.

But this may miss the point. In Exeter, it would appear that PBSA has done little to solve the issue. Exeter CAB’s research revealed that many landlords have been reluctant to adapt their property from HMOs to family homes as, under council directions, they are not able to change the property type back should they wish to. This has led to many larger properties either being left empty or being occupied by young single people rather than families once more. It seems that far from being the nightmare neighbours and tenants of urban myths, students are actually preferred to houses full of single people sharing.

PBSAs also push up private rents; the Knight Frank 2014 Student Property report found that students in Exeter were prepared to pay more than 30% more to live in a PBSA. This has potentially financially negative implications for locals looking to rent in the private rented sector, as well as students themselves, as those with lower incomes and less financial support are left struggling to afford to study in Exeter [now the third most expensive university town in the UK].

A wider social consequence of PBSA has been that, rather than decrease ‘student ghettoization’, they in fact encourage the further segregation of university towns, as students live in near-complete separation to local residents. This is a future as well as present concern, as students who stay living in their university towns after they graduate are more likely to remain segregated, creating a more permanent and far reaching ‘us and them’ dynamic in cities like Exeter.

On reflection it might appear that the problem of studentification is actually a far more complex matter of historical planning, transport links and community cohesion. Larger Victorian properties lend themselves to being split or shared; campus-based universities encourage clustering of students; transport links discourage dispersal and integration if young people cannot get to work or university. These factors and many others combine to create an environment in which students become both passive consumers and active drivers of the local housing market.

The issues faced by university towns tend to be framed negatively as a plight of ‘town versus gown’, and it is questionable whether attempts to resolve the problems of studentification have been successful. Although it remains a complex issue, perhaps it’s time policy makers begin to consider the ways in which local and student communities can be encouraged to integrate as a community, rather than be segregated further from each other.

This blog post is part of an ongoing research project working with bureaux across eight different regions across England and Wales, with the final report due to be published this spring. The project aims to understand the everyday realities of the various housing issues affecting people across the country, fulfilling the aims of Citizens Advice as an organisation to serve as ‘a window through which social workers and legislators could see the man on the street’.

[1] The Politics of Studentification and `(Un)balanced’ Urban Populations: Lessons for Gentrification and Sustainable Communities? Darren Smith, Department of Science and Engineering, University of Brighton, Lewes Road, Brighton, BN2 4GJ, UK,

This paper explores the politics of studentification in the UK. It is argued that there is a paradox between New Labour’s vision of sustainable communities and the geographical effects of the promotion of higher education—in a similar vein to policies to generate `positive’ gentrification. This contention hinges on the absence of a national policy on the supply of student housing, which dictates how enlarged student populations should be integrated into established communities, or dispersed to other parts of towns and cities. It is asserted that the lack of government policy and the incapacity of institutional actors to intervene or regulate the residential geographies of students are yielding `unbalanced’ populations. This is a factor in the rise of studentification and the fragmentation of established communities. Ironically, some activists argue these `lost’ communities signified lucid exemplars that the sustainable communities policy seeks to engender. These new geographies also obscure the positives of a student population and may foster resentment and conflict between students and established residents. More specifically, the paper illustrates how debates of planning and housing legislation are integral for addressing the challenges of studentification. The paper concludes by considering some possible lessons of studentification for mitigating the negatives of gentrification.

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