Fines for partying won’t make students better neighbours
Spare a thought for the UK university student forever locked in a losing battle against the Man. First they hiked the tuition fees, then their housing costs, then politically engaged students became fair game for the press to attack. And in a move so dastardly, so wicked – an existential threat striking at the essence of student life – they’re coming for their piss-ups.
This week it was revealed that party-monster students at Bristol University can be forced to take classes to learn how to be better (and more quiet) neighbours. It’s just one of a number of punishments – from evictions to fines ranging between £50 and £300 – designed to curb the swelling tide of wasted, loutish students making town centres and residential streets unbearable of an evening. It’s town v gown, and recent figures put it at a £350,000 loss in fines on the student population.
When I first heard about these fines, alarm bells went off. There is ultimately something quite sinister about a member of the public who has taken umbrage with someone – for whatever reason, some warranted and some not, some biased and some not – being able to have their disdain acted out via the strong arm of institutional power. It reminds me of my sweet 16 summer, when a number of the parents of the kids I hung out with at school were hit with antisocial behaviour orders.
Even then, we knew it was because we were working-class. That if hanging out in the back garden over a disposable barbecue was less about smoking rollies, wearing sportswear and listening to heavy metal or rap, and more about ambient Balearic house, sparkling perry and vol-au-vents, there wouldn’t be a problem. Asbos were classist through and through, and it does make me wonder how such university fines and punishments are getting doled out. Will well-heeled students be deterred or can they just afford to pay up? Though I must doff my cap to universities for the sheer ingenuity of punishments – from a ban on playing rugby to forced reflective letter writing – no student is safe from the party police.
Still though, what can be taught at a “good neighbour” class – given that neighbourliness is an area of civic life where context is everything. Take me. After a long day at work and a commute home in a sardine can, my favourite neighbour is the one who leaves me alone, not the one who catches me at the door to explain at length why we simply must start a petition about the bins. And give me the Saturday night drinker over the Sunday morning vacuum user, any day. But at my mum’s in the quieter ’burbs, one cherishes the neighbour who stops by for a chat.
When I was in my final year at university, my next-door neighbour made several complaints about our parties (the old-fashioned way, banging on the wall, before eventually coming over to threaten us with the police). Eventually we spoke to our neighbour directly to apologise and to ask how we might find a compromise between our competing interests. We negotiated. I learned a life lesson (that is, if in doubt, beg shamelessly).
Student life is all about pushing the boundaries and finding out what’s too far. Socialising is also an important aspect of student life and if universities must charge the fees they do, and towns are ultimately enriched by them, we should have some patience for young people trying things out. Because sometimes you just can’t teach what experience can provide.
• Coco Khan is a Guardian columnist and feature writer
‘Party monsters at Bristol University can be forced to take classes to learn how to be better students.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo