Leading article: Universities must reach out

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The Independent Online

Since the Second World War, British universities have not considered serving their local communities to be part of their remit.

Since the Second World War, British universities have not considered serving their local communities to be part of their remit. Although they were often established by local worthies and funded by local businessman, in the last century they began to regard their constituency as national, or even international. This was academically driven, says Eric Thomas, the vice-chancellor of Bristol University who has looked in detail at the subject. In addition, the rapid expansion in higher education that culminated in the Robbins report in the Sixties meant that there were many more students. Because they were given generous grants, they looked to move away from home when they went to university.

But now this is beginning to change. Nudged by politicians and mindful that they need to nurture all their constituencies, universities are seeking to connect with their local communities and are doing so on all fronts - economic, social and cultural. Professor Thomas has been on a personal mission to cultivate as many local people as possible since he arrived in Bristol three years ago. "The important thing is to signal openness to the community in question rather than be seen as an ivory tower," he says.

In Leeds, which has become one of Britain's biggest student cities since the explosion in student numbers in the Nineties, and where the heart of communities such as Headingley have been ripped out by "studentisation" (see page 6), there is a desperate need for universities to connect with their neighbours. Happily, there are signs that Leeds University has been trying to do this by appointing a dedicated community liaison officer and introducing schemes to mitigate the damaging effects caused by large numbers of students moving in and out at certain times of the year. Forthcoming conferences on the subject, one tomorrow, another next month, show that universities as a whole are also starting to take the matter seriously. It may be too late to turn the clock back in Headingley, but it is not too late for universities to ensure that the degradation that has happened in areas of Leeds does not happen elsewhere.

Students, as any parent knows, are a mixed blessing. They bring many benefits - money, ideas and cultural activity - but they also bring noise, litter and a rootlessness that is antithetical to a stable, prosperous community. The vice-chancellors of both universities in Leeds should make it their job to reach out to local people and to make sure that their students do so, too.

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