Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday 3 June 2021, under the headline 'Class of 2021: will Covid kill off our university towns', Helen Chandler-White asks 'what happens when a town that relies on students has to go without?'

Class of 2021: will Covid kill off our university towns?

As students opt to stay at home rather than live on campus, small-town economies that have been built upon them are looking precarious

What happens when a town that relies on students has to go without?

In the final part of her series, Helen Chandler-Wilde looks at the wider effect universities – and their students – have on the local economy.

Silver Street is one of Durham’s prettiest spots: starting at a 15th century bridge crossing the River Wear, its cobbled path winds up the hill towards the historic market place. Just over a year ago, it was lined with a mixture of independent boutiques and upmarket chains, but today things look very different. In a stretch of less than 200 yards, I count 12 empty shop fronts.

Businesses in university towns like Durham have not only had the financial pressures of Covid closures, but an additional threat: the absence of vast swathes of its population. With its 20,000 students told to stay away for much of the year, Durham lost nearly half of its city-dwellers and a huge chunk of its spending power.

“We have suffered, says Cllr Alan Doig, chair of the City of Durham Parish Council. “The biggest sufferers were coffee shops… and the night time economy was decimated.”

The situation in Durham is a snapshot of a larger story up and down the UK. After Christmas, six in 10 students stayed with their parents for the start of the spring term, according to the Office for National Statistics. In Durham, the students’ union estimates that three in four students were still at home with their parents in March. After the academic year began with students being confined to their rooms after outbreaks of coronavirus in their halls of residence, it is no surprise that many chose to stay away during the most recent national lockdown.

But this drop in footfall has been bad news for businesses that rely on student spending. Universities in Britain have expanded rapidly over the past three decades, especially under policies brought in by Tony Blair’s government which pledged that half of young Brits would attend. New campuses have often been welcomed: along with the influx of new jobs, they bring the spending power of students from home and abroad.

There are no figures for the whole of the UK, but students in Wales spend nearly £2billion off-campus each year, according to a 2018 report from sector body Universities Wales. International students are a particularly lucrative prospect, spending £12.3billion a year off-campus across Britain which is the equivalent to 108,000 jobs, according to Universities UK. Two dozen universities even chartered special flights at the start of the year to get these high-spenders back to campus.

This sudden absence of student income has been keenly felt in small towns and cities, where students can make up a large proportion of the population. Anna Marshall, a third-year history student who stayed in Durham, says she saw the economic changes via hip café Flat White whose perennial queues outside the door disappeared in the spring. The city’s new hot spot seemed to be Costa Coffee, she says. “Without the usual spenders”, the thriving independents are fading fast, she says. “The locals are a very different consumer to the student crowd.”

But despite the wealth that the university brings to the town, many permanent residents are not a fan of the students. Lily Whear, 20, a second year Chinese studies student, says that there has been “hostility” from some locals, drawing out her phone to show me Facebook posts from Durham residents. There is picture after picture of groups of young people, out and about on the streets of the city, with snarky comments asking why they aren’t at home.

One poster writes that students should be “locked up”; another asks why the police aren’t using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them.

“It’s the students’ fault for everything, apparently”, says Whear. “The relationship between the town and students is difficult at the best of times, but Covid has made it worse.” She points to the measures taken to control students’ behaviour this year, like employing two new security guards to patrol student areas seven-nights-a-week on the lookout for rule breakers.

Another issue is that students are often assumed to be breaking the rules even when they are not. Doig says that “Walking round in a group of six is not good in a small town”, but history student Marshall says people wrongly imagine the worst of young residents.  “The local community will see eight people out together and assume they’re rule-breaking – but that’s just a student household.”

Some of this bitterness seems to stem from the simple fear that students living close together in large households could spark outbreaks of Covid in their community. This fear is somewhat justified: analysis by The Telegraph found that university towns had rates of Covid around 40 per cent higher than elsewhere in the UK after freshers’ week last year. In Durham, over 1,200 students tested positive for Covid within a week of the autumn term starting. In some cases, bored students hosted illegal gatherings which fuelled the spike in cases. A student at another university, who asked to remain anonymous, said that illegal parties of up to 400 guests were a well-oiled operation in his halls of residence. “People charge £10 to get in to cover the risk of getting caught and fined”, he says. “You can make a fair bit [of money] from it.” In Durham, Whear tells me she knows of students who have been suspended from their studies for hosting parties.

Lily Whear says students are being blamed for everything in Durham. 

Small towns were grateful to have a bit of breathing room without the threat of student outbreaks, says Durham councillor Doig. “When the students weren’t here it meant Durham wasn’t overcrowded”, he says. “I understand it [from the students’ point of view], but I also understand the side of 60-year-old people who want to go shopping and not see large groups of young people in the shop.”

Locals have been keeping their distance where possible, says Doig. Whereas students, who usually don’t have cars, are seen in city centre supermarkets, the locals have often been driving to out-of-town retail parks to pick up their essentials.

Outbreaks seem less likely in the town now given high levels of vaccination locally and a slick testing procedure at the university, with students getting swabbed twice a week in a makeshift medical centre in a marquee outside the cathedral. The issue now will be how to get spending back into the town, safely.

With the university saying that many lectures will be online in the next academic year, some students feel a lesser need than before to actually live in the city, making this yet harder. Whear says there are students who have opted out of halls to live with their parents, instead going to campus only when necessary.

“I don’t think there will be a rush back, it will be slow”, says Doig of the looming challenges ahead. “The rebuilding will be very difficult.”

The Class of 2021 series

How university students have been sold short

Is this the end for university as we know it?

Class of 2021: will Covid kill off our university towns?