The Irish Examiner View: Solving the tensions between town and gown in Cork

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the surface and into the headlines underlying behavioural problems and social tensions that have been simmering for many years, one of them being adversarial clashes of interests that set city residents against the universities they host.
The Irish Examiner View: Solving the tensions between town and gown in Cork
University College Cork UCC Quad
University College Cork UCC Quad

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the surface and into the headlines underlying behavioural problems and social tensions that have been simmering for many years, one of them being adversarial clashes of interests that set city residents against the universities they host. One of the earliest town v. gown clashes was seen in Oxford, England, in 1209, when fights between townspeople and professors led to scholars fleeing to a more congenial location, which they found further east in Cambridge.

While the youngsters who so thoughtlessly at the weekend held “Magaluf” parties” in the surroundings of UCC, to the understandable annoyance of local residents, were not students, but people renting vacant homes, at any other time they might well have been.

The distress experienced by residents was voiced eloquently by the leader of a neighbourhood association: “They are giving two fingers to the HSE, to the health regulations, to our frontline workers, and to this community. We are not putting up with this for the summer … There are many elderly people living in this community. They are the last guard of this community. We love where we live and we will move our campaign to landlords’ own homes because unless they feel the pain, nothing will change.”

The weekend fracas highlighted a problem that town planners and our institutions of higher learning have yet to solve when they get around to planning — or not planning — student accommodation.

The university boom that central and local governments encouraged with tax breaks and other incentives can bring employment to towns and cities in need of rejuvenation but the consequences for local neighbourhoods can include disruption, noise, litter, more multiple occupation houses, soaring property prices and levels of anti-social behaviour that drives permanent residents away. It’s known as studentification … an ugly word for an ugly phenomenon that has been a conspicuously negative upshot of the burgeoning higher education industry.

The merger between CIT and IT Tralee to form Munster Technological University is, as a local TD has noted, a “perfect opportunity” to regenerate Cork’s northside. It is an opportunity that will enrich economically and culturally the entire city; it’s a positive for both sides of the river, regardless of location. It is also a perfect opportunity for local councillors, town planners and colleges to work together in finding a solution to the studentification problem.

Like every other part of the economy, colleges and universities face a harsh post Covid-19 world, one in which the focus of financial managers and vice chancellors on attracting students will be greater than it has ever been.

But that understandable quest cannot be allowed to let college authorities and local councils get away with overlooking the need, not only for enforceable controls on summer lettings in university districts, but for planning student accommodation that gives protecting the interests of residents and the neighbourhoods in which they’ve grown up the highest priority.

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