Charlie Jeffery: Town and gown should be hand in hand

Edinburgh University students helped revamp Preston Street Primary School during half term. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Edinburgh University students helped revamp Preston Street Primary School during half term. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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The University of Edinburgh owes its existence to the city: it was founded by the far-sighted Town Council in 1583 to educate the children of the townsfolk.

Since then we’ve expanded far beyond law, divinity, anatomy and surgery to include new disciplines such as informatics, business and genetics.

While the hub of the university will remain at the heart of the city, we have extended out to King’s Buildings, Little France, the Western General and Easter Bush. Alongside this, and as testament to our international reputation and success, numbers of staff and students have also increased.

The university is a key economic engine for Edinburgh and an asset to its international reputation.

Our ranking as 17th best university in the world rests on the groundbreaking research we are doing in medicine, veterinary medicine, science, engineering, humanities and social science. It is also due to the brilliant students we attract from across Scotland, the UK and the world who come to study hard and enjoy living in one of Europe’s finest capital cities.

As part of their studies from law to medicine, nursing to teaching, veterinary science to social work, many students work in the community, contributing to the health and wellbeing of Edinburgh’s citizens (and their pets!). For example, our free Legal Advice Clinic helps people in distress while Music in the Community inspires local schoolchildren to give concerts.

Students’ expenditure benefits the local economy through their purchase of goods and services and their support for a vibrant cultural scene, but students contribute so much more. They bring energy and commitment to civic life, churches and festivals, particularly the Science Festival, the Fringe and the Art Festival. Every year around 1000 students – many international – participate in environmental clean-ups and befriending schemes, run Brownie packs and holiday camps, teach languages and science in schools, and organise fundraisers benefiting local charities.

As graduates, they attract inward investment to the city because their advanced skills feed fast-growing sectors like IT and biotechnology. Over the past five years, students have started up more than 130 companies in the city. And if they leave us having had a happy experience here, they become global ambassadors for Edinburgh.

The council is consulting about how and where students live in the city. Typically, this is either in residences built and run by universities or private developers, or in accommodation rented out by private landlords, offering a mix of accommodation types across the city to meet students’ needs.

Sometimes issues arise about the impact of students on neighbourhoods – a challenge for most university towns. Working with our Students’ Association, we strive to promote awareness of the need to be a “good neighbour” and are in regular dialogue with the council, residents’ groups and others about matters affecting our estate.

It is important for us to acknowledge our neighbours’ concerns about balanced, sustainable communities and to make sure those are reflected in our planning for student accommodation, whether provided by us or others.

Over recent months, I have listened particularly to Southsiders about the scale of local development and I am pleased to have heard none of the starker “anti-student” language sometimes reported which wishes to create division between students and longer-term residents.

I’d like to offer a current example of how students and the community can enrich each other. A group of our students – working with pupils, parents, teachers and the Greenworks charity – has recently helped transform the playground of Preston Street Primary School by creating new outdoor furniture and play equipment. A project like this not only enables our students to put their studies into practice, but it breathes new life into an important amenity for local children.

That’s the kind of outcome I would like to see the university and local community creating in the future as we work together to build shared purpose and win shared benefit.

Professor Charlie Jeffery is senior vice-principal at Edinburgh University