A world away from the purple hoodies of Oxford Road, increasing numbers of Mancunians are living in conditions of extreme poverty. Last Wednesday the ‘Campaign to End Poverty’ published figures which revealed that Manchester Central has the highest levels of child poverty in the whole of the UK, with nearly half (47%) of children experiencing severe poverty. This news follows the shocking findings published by ‘Greater Manchester Poverty Commission’ last month. The commission revealed that over one in five residents in Greater Manchester lives in conditions of ‘extreme poverty’. Bishop McCulloch, the chair of the report, classed ‘extreme poverty’ as an income of less than £12,000 a year. In revealing that one in five Mancunians lives in the 10% most severely deprived areas in the country, the report exposed the stark reality of unemployment, low income and public sector neglect in Manchester. Furthermore, the commission warned that if economic conditions worsen and welfare services further diminish, then up to 1.6 million, half of Manchester’s population, will risk falling into poverty. With rising unemployment rates and dwindling public services, the gulf between South and North Manchester has never felt greater.
Nevertheless, as a student, it is easy to remain isolated from the deprivation which lies beyond the impermeable bubble of Oxford Road. In between the anxious wait for exam results and the dread of impending deadlines, it is inexcusably easy to become detached from the wider city in which we live. Surrounded by an abundance of academic, consumer and entertainment facilities, the majority of students limit themselves to the Oxford Road corridor and seldom venture beyond either Fallowfield or Picadilly. For this reason, the extreme deprivation of the surrounding areas often goes unnoticed. Whilst, we impatiently reload our student portals in desperate anticipation for exam results, the decision between hunger, heating and transport remains a real choice for many Manchester residents. Furthermore, while we fail to notice the daily privileges of our bus-pass or internet access, not to mention our monopoly-sized loans, many young people in Manchester have highly limited access to basic transport and technology facilities. If poverty is defined as a lack of choice – not being able to choose how you spend your time, where you live, what you buy, who you meet and where you go – then ‘studenthood’ is its very antithesis. Whilst the student life is characterised by a wealth of free time and a sociable lifestyle, for many Mancunians poverty permeates everyday life and the threat of being laid off, having benefits cut or houses repossessed remains a reality for many.
As the largest student city in Western Europe, it seems ironic that Manchester is also home to the highest levels of child poverty and property repossession in the whole of the UK. In this highly polarised city, the student population remains a world apart from its surrounding areas of deprivation. Nevertheless, students inability to detect the poverty which surrounds them is neither the result of apathy or social exclusion, rather it is because students have no reason or desire to visit the parts of Manchester hit hardest by destitution. Real deprivation has no place in ‘student ghettoes’. Furthermore, ‘studentification’ has led to minimal interaction between students and local communities. The inherently transient, cyclical nature of student life – many of us come for three years and then leave – has meant that students often have little commitment to the past or future of the city of Manchester, instead they remain involved in the perpetual present.
It is not enough to accept the disparity between our beloved Russell Group university and the wider city in which it is situated. The University and those within it must play a greater role in shaping the fabric of adjacent neighbourhoods surrounding campus. Rather than turning a blind eye to Moss Side, which is half a mile to the East of John Rylands or Longsight which is half a mile to the West of University Place, the University must take responsibility for the wider community in which it is located. By delivering provision for the community and widening participation from under-represented groups, the University would be able to expand its role within the wider city. Moreover, in expanding student placements in the community and increasing funding to groups like ‘Student Action’, who have a long legacy of a remarkable work in the community, Manchester would become increasingly integrated into the wider community. In congruence with the recommendations of the recent report, we must address the gross disparities in wealth and improve practical solutions for those living in poverty. As ‘Mancunions’, we hold a responsibility to the wider city in which we live.