Oxford – a tale of two cities sitting in the same space

SJ Novak describes what happens to town-and-gown when students disappear, and how the hush of the midwinter streets betrays something important about our community

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Quietness, quietness, in a place characterised by the shuffle and buzz of centuries-old university life, has an audible impact. It is, indeed, very, very quiet here.

It is the day after New Year’s Day, when the revelries accompanying the dawn of a new year have faded and all that is left is quiet. And yet, the quiet is not simply the by-product of a sombre January afternoon, amidst the post-Christmas lull where cities sleep and townspeople softly shuffle around the streets waiting for the cosy comfort of the evening darkness to envelop them. The quiet is the distinct silence brought about by the absence of something essential because this city, Oxford, is starved of its life blood—students.

The absence of students is practically tangible on this midwinter morning. Libraries peer at you from around every corner; you can almost feel them sighing with emptiness, longing to be filled with students who will pour over tomes and study furiously for collections. Pubs and restaurants have patrons, but they are not bursting at the seams in the way they do during term time. Reservations seem like almost comedic propositions, and at this time of year pubs like The Perch—its fire burning softly as the winds whistle by on a Sunday night—seem impossibly large for their clientele. There is no need to spend 20 minutes scouting for a seat next to a power socket in Costa, there are barely any tables taken and G and D’s, that student staple, is closed. There is a quiet sleepiness that can’t be fully explained by the month or the time of year. Oxford’s urban character seems permanently bonded to its student population in their absence, and through them to their historic university.

And yet, this is a city that exists without students. This is a city with a population of some 160,000 residents. It is a city that is home to a thriving publishing industry, a successful car manufacturer, and a growing IT industry. It is a city with an eclectic art and music scene, a city which is considered to be the home of modern folk music. It is a city that provided refuge to King Charles II during the English Civil War. Of course, it is also a city with soaring property prices and an increasingly serious homelessness crisis. Oxford is not merely a municipal infrastructure demarcated by its insufficiencies in the absence of students. It is a city characterised by its own inner life and also the question, perhaps, of what could free it from its attachment to those same students.

The town and gown divide has deep historical roots; tour guides pointedly emphasise that the first prisoner locked away in Oxford Castle was allegedly an inebriated student. Tensions between university students and Oxford’s medieval Jewish population related to the pawning of books are said to have contributed to the 1268 Ascension Day riots, after which the Jews were made to sponsor a gold crucifix erected on the grounds of Merton College. The Winchester historian R.C. Richardson describes fierce political disputes over the university’s historic privileges, which around the time of the English Civil War included the ability to set some prices, regulate bread and beer, and collect tolls within city limits. A town once taxed by a university might justifiably harbour some lingering resentment towards its academic elite.

Conversations with local residents and workers heighten the sense that the town and gown divide remains, and its effects are pronounced during University vacations. Some of the benefits are easy to notice and intuitively appealing to townspeople. Oxford resident Maegan Reed was keen to extol the benefits of the University holidays on grounds of the proportional reduction in noise.

“There are fewer drunk people yelling in the street outside my at at 3am on a weekday, and that’s a holiday from my rage,” she said.

These frustrations are self-evident, although they might pale in comparison to the two Quaker women who Professor Richardson describes being “set upon and nearly killed” by Oxford students during the Commonwealth government under Cromwell. Ms Reed’s concerns are shared by other Oxford residents whose complaints seem to more straightforwardly highlight the cultural divide between the two camps. One local worker said in passing that “there’s a perceptible decrease in braying students annoying me, which is nice.”

But statistics imply that actual crime seems largely unaffected by the presence of students. Louis Thurman, a graduate from the Policing Studies programme at Oxford Brookes University, says that crime data for the period from December 2015 to November 2016 shows a seasonal spike in theft in the city centre around Christmas that is most likely not related to students. Increases in Anti-Social Behaviour offences in the summer and Violent and Sexual offences in September and October were not statistically significant.

“By crime statistics alone it does not appear that the students of Oxford themselves have much of an effect on the levels or recorded crime,” Thurman says.

J.M.W. Turner’s painting ‘Oxford: St Mary’s and the Radcliffe Camera from Oriel Lane’, currently on display in the Tate Britain, might speak to a cultural divide that resists empirical classification. In that 1793 painting, the University’s first building at St Mary’s Church and the Radcliffe Camera dominate the backdrop, while the vague outlines of a cart and buggy hint at the possibility of a broader community outside the academic sphere.

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The perceived cultural disconnect might be understandable in terms of just how much there is to the city obscured in Turner’s sketchy blur, and how much of this place is and has been ignored in favour of the grandeur of the University.

What the rivalry means in practice is difficult to pin down. Generally, as Michael Jacobs wrote in a Cherwell article last term, it is understood to be the various tensions which arise between the people living and working in Oxford, and the very large transient student population. Snobbery or hostility may no longer underpin that dynamic, Jacobs said, but “the lives of students [at Oxford] are inevitably structured differently to those at school or with jobs”, and that is an irreducible fact.

But how much material difference does the mass exodus of students at the end of every term actually make to Oxford?

University facilities can take on a different face to townspeople when students are gone. One Iffley Road user likes the holidays because the centre “isn’t crowded and I can get a treadmill that is not occupied, or have my own pool lane”.

There is definite feeling among local workers and residents that the vacations bring with them a chance for locals to reclaim their city. Empty lanes at the pool are concurrent with shorter lines for activities that carry inverse health benefits. As one burger fan pointed out—albeit slightly tongue in cheek—“when students leave, the Peppers Burgers wait time goes from fifteen minutes to ten. Time is money. And burgers are brilliant.”

Not all locals are so quick to rush to judgement of students. John Kay, a local worker, was keen to stress that students often provided mild doses of amusement for those who work in the city.

“What you don’t get, when the city is empty of students, are the occasional, delightfully surreal sights. I quite enjoy spotting a bewildered, drunk fresher waiting for a bus in a robe and comedy crown,” Kay said. He drily noted that this has happened on more than one occasion.

The divide can be sensationalised, although Thames Valley Police do occasionally find themselves having to interact with students, drunken or otherwise, who have placed themselves in hazardous situations. Three LMH students were arrested in 2008 and made to perform community service after skinny-dipping in the Castle Mill Stream, drawing serious criticism from the university and a torrent of criticism from local media and online commenters. At the time, some oxfordmail.net users described students as “unbearable toffs” and “generally worthless to society”.

But not everybody who works in Oxford is so quick to proclaim the virtues of a vacation period that sends students across Britain and the globe. Visiting a local coffee shop, usually bustling with students fighting for seats, was a quick lesson in how much the town depends on the University for its livelihood. At one of the busiest times of the day the coffee shop was desolate. There was myself, two members of staff, and two other customers. I asked one of the members of staff to comment on how they find business outside of term time. They said they were unable to comment in an official capacity, but they did take a look at the almost empty shop and give me a knowing look.

The economic impact of the mass departure, according to conversations with workers, seems to affect some sectors of the local economy more painfully than others. A taxi driver, who wishes to remain nameless, explained that “without the students and staff in the University at this time of year, there is hardly any work”. He explained that there is no need for as many taxi drivers as normal and that he must personally budget carefully throughout the year to ensure that he makes enough during the term time to tide him over during the vacation periods. A local off-licence also highlighted how perilous the vacation period is for business. Pointing to his empty shop (save for the two of us), he told me that “this time of year is so quiet. We have to change the window displays to appeal to the different market, but we miss the students”. He went on to explain that not only does the shop notice a drop in income during vacations due to the lack of students, but they also really suffer from the lack of university staff who are in Oxford during the vacation periods.

This highlights an important point. Many of the locals and residents who have expressed views about the city in the vacation have focused on the students, but there is a hitherto yet discussed dimension to this: University staff. Whilst much of the town’s small businesses rely on the students and the University to support their livelihoods, many of them rely on the staff of the University to support their businesses. And the University relies on the ‘town’ to support it in its endeavours. The University is one of the major employers in the city of Oxford—both reliant upon one another to function.

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The Oxford University staff count is at slightly over 13,000 employees, and that number doesn’t include those employed solely by colleges or Oxford University Press, which is part of the University. Counting those employed by OUP and the colleges results in a final sum of over 15,000 thousand people employed by way of the University. For a city with a population of 159,000, this means that around 10 per cent of the population of the city might conceivably work for the University, a figure that might well be higher given the difficulty of finding figures related to the staff employed by the individual colleges.

What’s more, this figure of around 15,000 people dependent on the University for their livelihood, or, expressed differently, the 15,000 people the University depends on in order to run smoothly, doesn’t take into account the number of people indirectly employed by the University like freelance writers, editors, designers, and consultants, or the number of people and businesses who benefit from the disposable income of those employed by the University. The footprint of the University, both in terms of student expenditure and staff payroll, is inextricably intertwined with the economic output of the city.

The empty seats, open pathways and new signage that physically denote the start of a student holiday may express something fundamental to the city’s character, not in terms of how Oxford three times a year chooses to reject its students but in how everything, eventually, reverts to normal. Locals might celebrate regaining their city three times a year, and students might find the empty city lacking. But as much as there is a divide between the town and the gown, there’s also a symbiotic relationship. The University provides for the ‘town’, and the city provides for the University.

Far gone are the days when the Laudian bishops Bancroft and Skinner struggled mightily to impart Laud’s notions of “good order and decency” onto the university’s students, as Richardson writes. No longer do the university’s students jeer the town councillors as they make an annual pilgrimage to atone for the fatalities incurred in the St Scholastica Day Riot of 1355. It would be difficult to seriously sustain an argument these days that the university is now “the dominant partner in town-gown relations” as it was during the Restoration, not when Oxford is the global centre of Mini Cooper production. But the two parties do depend on each other. Though townspeople continue to regard students with various resentment, apathy, and mirth.

To paraphrase from China Mieville’s novel The City and the City (a novel about two different cities which occupy the same physical space), perhaps as we walk around Oxford, “we should all walk with a little more equipoise, walk in either city; be Schrodinger’s citizens.”

Extra detail: local policing student on Oxford’s crime patterns

Louis Thurman, Graduate of Policing Studies from Oxford Brookes University

With most areas, it is possible to see certain types of crimes which are more prevalent, and when one looks at the crime statistics for the central area of the city during the period of December 2015 to November 2016 (police.uk, 2016), as one might expect, there is a noticeable spike in theft offences; such as shopliftings, thefts from persons (pickpocketing etc.), and thefts of pedal cycles. These figures show that the general trend of crime frequency in the city centre does not seem to show much fluctuation throughout the year.

However, the trend of theft offences shows a peak in October and November. Considering that the city centre has an abundance of shops, and an increased amount of footfall before Christmas, I think it is unlikely that this trend is related to the present or absence of students. There are other very minor trends that occur such as an increase in ‘Anti-Social Behaviour’ in the summer months, and an increase in ‘Violent and Sexual’ offences around September and October.

It could be interpreted that these changes are due to an increase in the amount of time that the remaining students spend socialising in the city in the warmer weather, and their return around September; but these trends are minor and cannot be considered statistically significant from just one year’s data, nor is it possible to attribute these fluctuations specifically to the comings and goings of students in the town.

In short, by crime statistics alone it does not appear that the students of Oxford themselves have much of an effect on the levels or recorded crime. However, when looking at the crime stats for areas of the city which contain large clusters of student halls, mainly for Oxford Brookes University, one can see an increase in the frequency of burglaries, which could be due to the students’ presence providing more opportunity for criminals.

When the students make their way home over Christmas, the town fills with Christmas parties and New Years celebrations. The result is a shift in the types of people in the city rather than the volume.”