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Our newly appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Andrew Atherton, has certainly got some very ambitious aims. In a recent interview with the Lancaster Guardian, he announced his intentions to include the general public’s opinion on how the university can move forward over the next six years as a way of bridging the divide between the locals and students in Lancaster. It sounds straight-forward enough. Atherton said: “we will ask – what sort of things do you want to be doing in and around Lancaster in the next few years?”, which is certainly a good start. But I don’t think Atherton has quite realised just how ingrained the town and gown division actually is in Lancaster.
For one thing, the divide is two-fold. Not only are Lancaster University students divided from the locals, but we’re also divided from University of Cumbria students – who are also are divided from the locals. It’s one of the first things I remember being told by my freshers reps at the beginning of the year: that the locals are all weird and that the University of Cumbria students live up to their unfortunate acronym. I hadn’t expected to be faced with such prejudiced generalisations at university, an environment that usually embraces individuality because of the diverse background that our students come from.
Then there’s the problem of the way that the campus is designed. Andrew Atherton may have convinced himself that the divide between students and locals is purely psychological, but the self-contained campus is hardly ideally situated for close interaction with the local population. Yes, there is a 15-minute bus ride between campus and the town centre (or a half-hour bus ride if you accidentally get on a 2), but with the divide being so ingrained, neither the locals nor students have much cause to undertake that bus journey other than for necessary trips to the supermarket or Sugar.
It’s true that interaction between locals and students is not a complete void. With projects through LUSU Involve, for example helping out at local primary schools, as well as the university’s recent success in fighting doorstep crime against the local vulnerable and elderly citizens via the SAFE campaign, students do their fair share to get involved in the local area. It’s great that students and locals are able to so co-operate. Yet this does not solve the divide in more informal situations, such as when you are walking around the town centre. The situations in which students and locals come together have, until now, been planned and constructed. Atherton wants the divide to be bridged, but this would have to include less constructed situations, and it would seem that neither students nor locals are ready to do that.
The prejudice felt on both sides is going to be incredibly difficult to get rid of. Just a quick scroll through the infamous ‘Things Lancaster University Students Don’t Say’ Facebook page reveals the attitudes that are unfortunately common amongst students, with anonymous contributors posting statements such as ‘I can’t tell the difference between the locals and the students’, and ‘the locals are always so friendly and welcoming’. Aside from this Facebook page being a cover for cowards to abuse other people, it’s clear that some attitudes aren’t just going to disappear. Atherton seems to have taken for granted that students want to welcome the local population by targeting public opinion; for a real success he needs to look a bit closer to home.
It’s not just for university management to try to solve this problem though. The responsibility lies with us students, who have all been guilty at some point or another of these prejudiced attitudes towards the local population of Lancaster. Let’s be open-minded and start to integrate with the locals, even if it just means smiling and or saying hello. It wouldn’t kill us to give it a try.