Platform. The everyday portal for sharing knowledge and intelligence on sustainability across Greater Manchester.

Opinion: The great divide? Greater Manchester and its students

It is undeniable the presence of students in Greater Manchester, particularly on the Oxford road corridor. With an amalgamated total of over 97,000 between the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and Salford University, the apparent communication deficiency and isolation between students and the local community seems strange.

Having recently moved to Manchester to study English literature, my experiences of interaction with the local community have been limited. There is a sense of separation that isn’t aided by concentrated student areas such as Fallowfield creating an isolated environment where students do not integrate with the local community. Personally, I think this needs to change.

For many students, university is a significant catalyst in developing social, political and environmental consciousness that forms the basis of their academic and career prospective, yet the potential for this to be harnessed by Greater Manchester has yet to be fully explored.

Despite previous initiatives such as Manchester Masters, a post-graduate scheme funded by the Northwest Regional Development Agency, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts and Manchester city council which offered a master's in a professional practice with all tuition fees paid and four placements with prestigious local companies, the efforts to immerse students in opportunities aren’t easily accessible.

Graduate retention and employment is important to Manchester but when it comes to incorporating students as a resource for grassroots community engagement, there is a disconnection.

Graduate retention and employment is important to Manchester but when it comes to incorporating students as a resource for grassroots community engagement, there is a disconnection. It’s often about paths into employment rather than seeing it in a context where students are empowered to be socially responsible.

Admittedly, Manchester based universities have been proactive in using their expertise as academic institutions to influence regional development and the knowledge economy. The Greater Manchester Local interaction platform is one example, a project in the University of Salford's Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures (SURF) that seeks to act as an intermediary between different city stakeholders to strengthen links and encourage a dialogue for achieving sustainability. Despite this, there is a disparity between academic efforts and the student population contribution.

Beth Perry, Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director at the Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures (SURF) notes ‘what’s really happened in the last twenty years is [that] the focus has been on economic growth and innovation; a narrow and quite particular view of how universities engage with their urban environments has emerged and only at the margins has there been consideration of community engagement and social sustainability. So far in our work, we have been concentrating on knowledge exchange between academics and urban stakeholders; but there is an untapped potential to get students better engaged as well’.

This pressure to innovate commercially has left community development programmes in the dark. The same emphasis and interest needs to be applied to people orientated initiatives in addition to physical redevelopment for economic and commercial gain. Community development and the restructuring of the city are interdependent and should not be approached in isolation. This can only be achieved through a change in culture that views the two not as mutually exclusive but equal in importance.

If the focus were just as much on public interest as it is on commercial achievement, the universities of greater Manchester would collaborate instead of compete to genuinely construct a new and inclusive approach in creating a viably sustainable city. Manchester can and will only evolve when it begins to harness the potential of all its stakeholders, including students, to prevent detachment and disregard for the city.

Another aspect that propagates the detachment of students from the community is a physical and architectural one. Along the oxford road corridor, the university buildings of Manchester Metropolitan and the University of Manchester face inwards creating an environment exclusive to students that cocoons them from the outside world.

Hopefully, the University of Manchester’s recently announced Estates Master Plan (see download below) which intends to structurally redevelop the university through the construction of new teaching and research buildings, student facilities and major improvements to the public realm will attain this.

The first phase of the plan, costing around £700 million, will be delivered over the next six years and includes the building of a new engineering campus, new centres for the School of Law and Manchester Business School and a major refurbishment of the University Library. The University will also spend several million pounds to improve the University’s public realm and landscaping in order to capitalise on the future improvements to Oxford Road, which will see wider pavements, tree-lined boulevards and the removal of all cars during 2015.

By creating an open and more inviting space, the consequent effects could include making higher education accessible for young locals, particularly those from lower socio economic backgrounds.

The University of Manchester already offers an access programme (MAP) for local post-16 students who meet specific academic and background criteria. The aim of the programme is to support entry to The University of Manchester or another research-intensive university, which is mutually beneficial because it encourages the local community to pursue higher education, cultivating a learning society.

Admittedly, with the current economic climate it is difficult to invest in initiatives where the outcome is not economically viable but this mentality needs to change. The pressure of a tangible outcome makes it difficult to experiment with alternative and untested approaches.

In order for social cohesion to be truly be attained, it is crucial to develop new and innovative ways of engaging those who are not naturally inclined to participate. Student participation in community development is lacking, and the only remedy is to increase their individual sense of social responsibility and to take the focus off of commercial gain. It’s about altering the current view and actively promoting interaction between the local community and all levels of each academic institution. We need to combine, integrate and share knowledge better if more sustainable urban futures are to be achieved. The more perspectives involved, the closer we are to developing an environment that benefits all.

Campus Masterplan 2012-2022 [PDF, 3.89Mb]