The rape of Cathays

Cathays is dominated by the presence of Cardiff University, a mighty force in the city which tolerates no check on its expansionist ambitions.  Over the last 20 years, as universities have changed from centres of learning into fiercely competitive businesses scrambling for positions on those all-important Times Higher Education Supplement ranking tables, Cardiff University, without debate or democratic mandate, has conspired with unscrupulous absentee landlords to destroy Cathays.  What used to be the very best part of Cardiff for Cardiffians to live in, its network of Victorian terraced streets a lively, diverse and sociable inter-generational and inter-ethnic mix of all classes within minutes of town, is now the most student-saturated area in the entire UK.  The phenomenon dubbed ‘studentification’ has occurred in university towns and cities across the UK, but few come close to matching the studentification of Cardiff, where 14% of the total population are students.  In southern Cathays that figure rises to an amazing 66%, giving the area a higher percentage of students than anywhere else in Europe.  This isn’t a community; it’s a campus.

What’s wrong with that? Students bring youthful dynamism, regeneration, cultural renaissance, an educated, engaged population and new restaurants, cafes, bars and leisure amenities…don’t they?  Er, no.  They bring infantilism, rotting housing, community death, a transient, oblivious population and toxic takeaways, cheap off-licenses, ghettoised pubs and fly-tipping.  It’s not their fault: undergraduates will always be undergraduates, and today’s commodified students are as much victims as the people of Cathays.  The true perpetrators are easily fingered.

First and foremost comes the abominable Blair/Brown London government of 1997-2010 (Britain already had a war-mongering party dedicated to looking after the interests of the rich – did it really need two?).  During Labour’s years in power they doubled student numbers as a wheeze to stoke economic growth, disguise youth unemployment and tout for globalised capital.  At the same time they abolished grants and introduced loans, ensuring that 21 year-olds leave their colleges burdened with an average £25,000 of debt and deeply in hock to the consumer monoculture before they even begin earning.  It was all dressed up in weasel-words about the ‘knowledge economy’ which, as ever with New Labour, meant the precise opposite: an ignorance economy of non-productive, socially useless work in finance, insurance, sales, media, marketing and the like, essential only to the pyramid-selling scams of the profit system.  As for the talk about ‘spreading opportunities’, that too was just more bullshit: under Labour social mobility went into reverse, income inequality widened and birth disadvantage was further entrenched.  All that happened was that the old middle-class protection racket of the degree system was extended to the lower middle-classes, creating a mutual congratulation society awash with “qualifications” whose real purpose was to disqualify the working-classes.  The days when someone with natural intelligence could leave school at 16 and rise by merit and talent into a smart white-collar job were ended, ushering in the ludicrous situation where you require a degree in Hospitality Management to be allowed to pour a cup of coffee for Starbucks.  The bar was lowered so that three mediocre A-levels became a passport to further education (25%? Excellent! Welcome to the University of Chipping Sodbury!) and a virtually guaranteed degree, since the more degrees an institution issued the greater the central funding it received, the higher its place in the ‘league tables’ and the more chance it had of raking in the overseas students who delivered the big money.  In this feelgood Never Never Land where all shall receive prizes, a degree became devalued currency indicating nothing more than an ability to Google and put up with three years of lectures and,  revealingly, as graduation became more commonplace it was accompanied by increasingly extravagant, po-faced, US-style ceremonies with mortar-boards-in-the-air hoo-hah: a photo opportunity and a day out for the “proud” parents before all those exalted BAs and BScs faced chastening reality as Sad Grads signing on at the Job Centre with nothing special to offer an employer and up to their eyeballs in debt.  Blair’s children stalk the land, laden with more vellum parchment scrolls than you can shake a stick at, yet unable to tell you the name of Wales’ First Minister, much less the capital of Bulgaria.  It’s what makes Britain grate.

Then there is Cardiff University itself, an unaccountable monster before which the city is supposed to defer because, apparently, it’s the motor driving the Cardiff economy and, according to its prospectus, is considered “world class” in the groves of academe (the fact it has tumbled 36 places in the world rankings from 99th to 135th in the last four years is not mentioned).  Vice-Chancellor David Grant leads the organisation with all the high moral fibre one would expect from an Englishman with a background in the arms industry, while the latest President and figurehead is Martin Evans, another Englishman, who won the Nobel Prize in 2007 for his work creating genetically-modified mice. Under their tenure Cardiff University continues to pursue size as an end in itself and continues to forfeit the respect and affection Cardiffians once held for it.

When it was founded in 1883 as the College of South Wales & Monmouthshire in the vacant Glamorganshire & Monmouthshire Infirmary building on Newport Road, the bells of St John’s Church rang out all day in celebration and cheering crowds thronged the streets.  In 1893 it became one of the three founding colleges, with Aberystwyth and Bangor, of the federal University of Wales, a rare all-Wales body which was set up only after a 40-year campaign and thanks to the financial support of the Welsh people – London being quite content that Wales should be the only country in the UK without a university (had Owain Glyndwr’s 15th century insurrection been successful, Wales would have had these universities half a millennium earlier, as his education policy statement of 1404 makes clear).  Cardiff’s first Principal, and also the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales, was the brilliant scientist and tireless campaigner for Wales, John Viriamu Jones (1856-1901) from Swansea.  He gathered an able band of scholars and teachers around him and quickly established the College as a serious institution.  The indefatigable Jones persuaded Cardiff Corporation to donate a site in Cathays Park, but did not live long enough to see the new buildings occupied in 1909.

John Viriamu Jones

Through the years the University College developed an organic relationship with the rest of Cardiff, a benign and positive presence not restricted to the children of the rich, as was the case with other UK universities, while drawing 75% of its undergraduates from Wales and pioneering ‘lifelong learning’ with part-time classes for adults in the evenings.  It stayed true to the democratic impulses behind its foundation by creating educational opportunities regardless of wealth, gender and creed, and up until the 1960s the 3,000 undergraduates were an integral and proportionate feature of Cardiff.  Bringing earnestness, bohemianism and intellectual spark, the students in their red & black college scarves were a reassuring sight in the Cathays environs and city centre pubs and cafes; ‘town’ and ‘gown’ freely inter-relating to the benefit of both.  The rot began to set in due to a familiar Cardiff failing: delusions of grandeur.  Aspiring for “international” status, the College gradually forgot its roots and its prime responsibility to Wales, without which it would have no nation to be international from.  The College “built on the pennies of the poor”, the miners, quarrymen and chapel-goers of Wales who had raised the money for the only people’s university in Europe, rapidly transformed into just one more British provincial university.  By the time Thatcherism halted the post-war expansion of education in the 1980s Cardiff University’s Welsh undergraduates made up a mere 25% of the total, its specific remit and founding purpose to provide for the youth of Wales had been ditched, and from being at the heart of Welsh intellectual life it became the only capital city university in the world where the native population were in a minority – of teaching staff as well as students.  Under the Vice-Chancellorship of Brian Smith Cardiff joined the elitist Russell Group in 1999, a powerful lobby for the abolition of grants, the raising of fees and the commercialisation and privatisation of education.  From that point it was a short step to complete secesssion from the collegiate structure of the University of Wales in 2004, when the name Cardiff University was officially adopted.  This was a major contributory factor in the final ignominious demise of the University of Wales in 2011.  Following Cardiff’s lead, the College of Medicine, College of Music & Drama, Aberystwyth, Swansea and Bangor all departed and, without its biggest institutions, the University of Wales was reduced to flogging degrees overseas – a scandal that brought about its collapse.  Merged into Trinity St David, Lampeter, it is now merely a service provider for the Welsh higher education sector.  Meanwhile, Cardiff ended the commitment to lifelong learning in 2009, when the teaching of literature, history, archaeology, music, creative writing, philosophy, media studies, art history, religion, photography and Welsh were all axed.  Aggrieved that Welsh devolution means they can’t charge the huge fees allowed in England, the University would doubtless secede from Wales itself if it only could.

The further it has departed from its Welsh wellspring, the more alienated the University has become from Cardiff and the more irelevant it has become to true scholarship.  Now essentially a bottom-line business with a huge property portfolio, it concentrates on activities that maximise revenue and attract corporate funds. Tellingly, the largest department is the Business School, packed with advocates of neocon free-market economics – none of whom managed to anticipate the banking crash of 2008.  Every September another 10,000 freshers pour into Cathays from suburban England for three years of getting rat-arsed with each other, barely cognisant of the fact they are in Wales, before departing with their useless second-class degrees.  It’s not as if they even inject the counterculture, rebellion and radicalism of old: Cardiff has fewer live music venues now than it did when student numbers were a fraction of the current 42,000 (including UWIC and the University of Glamorgan); the anaesthetising and desensitising effects of alcohol are the favoured means of altering consciousness; a tattoo, a crazy hair-do and a Facebook account are the extent of this generation’s deviance; and depoliticisation of youth has been so thorough that a Students Union rally to protest at fee hikes attracted  a grand total of six to the barricades.  Apathy and fatalism have replaced activism and idealism.  The NUS newspaper, Gair Rhydd, used to win prizes for its journalism – now it reads like the kind of lightweight lifestyle supplement that comes with the Mail on Sunday.  As for the economic benefits that are supposed to be showering on Cardiff, the vast majority of the Uni’s 6,000 employees endure dreary,  low-paid admin work while 75% of the high-paid academic and research posts go to incomers – and in any case this comes nowhere near to matching the 10,000 jobs across the complete range of working possibilities that existed in Cathays alone before the University’s bloating binge began.  Apart from landlords and fast food outlets, there are now no beneficiaries from the University’s presence in Cardiff, and you can be sure that none of today’s graduates will feature in future roll-calls of distinguished alumni.  For all the posturing about global significance, and the insulting insinuation that Wales is far too small a pond for this Big Fish, the University no longer produces the stellar talents it did when it concentrated on its Welsh mission.  John ‘Gwili’ Jenkins (1872-1936), WJ Gruffydd (1881-1954), Morfydd Llwyn Owen (1891-1918), Dorothy Edwards (1903-1934), Caradog Prichard (1904-1980), Grace Williams (1906-1977), Gwyn Jones (1907-1999), Ken Etheridge (1911-1981), Pennar Davies (1911-1996), Alun Llywelyn-Williams (1913-1988), Roy Jenkins (1920-2003), Bernice Rubens (1928-2004), Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008), Bobi Jones, Dannie Abse and Gillian Clarke are a few of the names of genuine renown nurtured in just the Arts faculties of the old University College.  While this conveyor belt of excellence has ground to a halt resources are pumped into the Science faculties, where cosy relationships with Big Business determine the direction and tenor of “research” – which, surprise surprise, always ends up endorsing the accepted truth that new technologies automatically trump old ones.  By abandoning the development of its own indigenous talents to become a handmaiden for corporate power and a qualifications sausage-machine for the English middle-classes, the University has thrown away the genuine international standing it once possessed.  There’s a word for this: thick.

The third unrestrained force to wreck Cathays is the buy-to-let brigade.  In their quest to make a fast buck out of the explosion in student numbers they pounced on Cathays’ housing stock in a gluttonous frenzy during the Blair ‘boom’, urged on by easy lending, multiple mortgages, tax breaks and deregulation.  Street after street fell into their clutches as locals were outgunned financially by the landlords and long-standing tenants turfed out to make way for a rapid turnover of short-lease students.  The solid houses, ideal for families, were converted into multiple-occupancy dwellings, the better to wring every last drop from all those student loans.  A three-bedroom home became a six-bedsits source of unearned income, reconfigured internally so that restoration to its original condition would be impossible.  Touted to speculators by estate agents as a property hot-spot where a small house could deliver an effortless income stream of £30,000 a year in rent, Cathays became a forest of ‘for sale’ and ‘to let’ signs.  The average price of a property soared as the landlords, usually the opportunist from the English home counties or the reliably unscrupulous local builder, sat back and raked in the profits, so encouraging more of the already loaded to pile in to try their hand at unlicensed amateur landlordism and fatten up their pensions.  Cathays was annexed by people who cared nothing for the area’s history and community and wouldn’t dream of living there; Cardiffians were expelled from the core of their own town.  The property bubble burst in due course, but by then it was too late.  The vicious circle of studentification had turned Cathays into a place where nobody but students, passing through for a few months, would want to live anyway.  Shops and pubs shut, replaced by here-today-gone-tomorrow takeaways and themed bars.  Primary Schools closed for want of children.  Unmaintained, and left vacant outside of term time, the houses have become run-down slums.  Front gardens are dumping grounds for fouled mattresses, old furniture and disused pizza cartons as the landlords clear rooms between tenancies, unwilling to fork out for a skip and leaving the Council to pick up the tab, while slobbish, spoilt-brat students who proudly shit all over the neighbourhood contribute no Council Tax at all.  Wheelie bins overflow, garden walls and fences collapse, damp penetrates cracked mortar, rats run riot, phenomenal quantities of litter are everywhere, noise and anti-social behaviour are the norm.  Picking one road at random, Richards Street in the very heart of Cathays: in the middle of the academic year virtually every single house is for rent on both sides as far as the eye can see – each ‘to let’ sign a nail in the argument that housing is best left to market forces.  Meanwhile Cardiff has 12,000 on the social housing waiting list, the tip of a homelessness iceberg concealing countless more who don’t bother to register because it takes decades to rise up the list.  In term time parking is impossible because today’s students insist that daddy buys them a car and there are often four cars or more per house (so much for the whole point of living “within walking distance” of the University).  Then, for five months a year during holidays Cathays becomes a ghost town, landlords biding their time for the next batch of students rather than making much-needed homes available to the less lucrative demographic of families with children – and thus putting more pressure on Cardiff to spread out into the green belt for want of affordable and available housing in the city.  And, on top of all this, there is the immeasurable loss of diversity, culture and sense of community.  A nightmare combination of inconsiderate tenants with no stake in the district and no intention of getting involved with the few remaining local residents, plus nasty landlords who revel in their callous disregard for everyone but themselves, has wreaked turmoil and murdered one of Cardiff’s most special neighbourhoods.  It’s got so bad that even Cardiff Council has recognised the problem, but their cure has been as bad as the ailment: grant planning permission willy-nilly for privately-run halls of residence, supposedly to take the pressure off Cathays and fill the gap between the 5,000 places provided by the University in its 15 halls of residence and the 35,000 students requiring housing.  These private halls are provided by a new breed of exploitative parasites: fund management groups looking after the money of big institutional investors.  Playing on the fears of security-obsessed parents who want their little darling safe in a CCTV-monitored gulag, guaranteed 100% occupancy rates by deals with the University, and charging extortionate rents rising annually at double the rate of inflation, companies like Liberty Living and Unite are making a killing and awarding investors a copper-bottomed 10% return on their money – even in the worst property slump for decades.  Severn Point in North Road, Cambrian Point in Maindy Road, Victoria Hall in Blackweir Terrace and Allensbank House in Clodien Avenue promise freshers a funky vibe with chill-out rooms and wireless broadband; what they actually get is teeny-weeny stacked-up box rooms and one-sided contracts which demand a minimum year’s rental to relieve the gullible newcomers of their entire annual loan.  Nobody signs up for a second year: that’s when the older, wiser and rightly resentful 20 year-olds take their chances, and their revenge, in Cathays.  And, as filthy, overpriced Cathays becomes unattractive even to students, studentification increasingly creeps outwards to bring blight to Maendy, Roath and Heath.

Cathays streetscape

The people of Cathays have been treated with contempt, the once life-enhancing public spheres known by every Cardiffian are now gormless non-places where the only purpose is profit for the few, the decent homes in neighbourly streets have been lost, and the only education going on is how to get pissed for under a tenner.  This is failure on an epic scale.

Do you think I’m overstating the case?  Do you think I’m being unfair?  Well, actually, I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of the full damage.  An old friend of mine has lived in Wyeverne Road all her life.  She has seen her world turned upside down in no time: gone are her familiar haunts, her rich network of interdependent relationships and her sense of belonging, along with the myriad local amenities on her doorstep.  She finds herself in a slum, a stranger in her own street, never knowing who lives next door let alone who vomits on her window sill.  Since Cathays’ first terraced streets were laid out in the 1870s a century of personal histories, shared narratives and Cathays characteristics had been painstakingly accrued and made manifest in sandstone and slate along the likes of Wyeverne Road – and then, quite suddenly, they were obliterated, right before her eyes.  Her life’s been ruined.  She is one among thousands with similar stories.

Hope lies in the devolution process which gives Wales a chance to uncouple itself from the divisive, dysfunctional and discredited  ‘British’ educational tradition, currently personified to perfection by the ConDem’s Secretary of State for Education, swivel-eyed rightwing ideologue Michael Gove.  We need to redefine education to bring it into line with human experience.  We all know that learning doesn’t cease the moment you leave school.  Like it or not, we are pupils at one long, ever-changing lesson; we really are enroled at that proverbial University of Life.  The arbitrary and artificial divide between “students” and “non-students” is a product of an education philosophy made in hierarchical England and unchanged since Victorian times.  Wales can do much better than that.  The early advocates of the University of Wales had a truly radical vision in which all Welsh people could consider themselves students of the national university.  That plan could not be implemented due to the London veto, and Wales had to settle for John Viriamu Jones’ well-meaning but flawed model.  The concept should be dusted down for the 21st century to create a Wales where everybody has free access to the education they want throughout their entire life.  Cardiff University, founded by the people, intended for the people and built on land donated by the people can be reclaimed for the people as a truly universal institution.  And Cathays? Battered, bruised, beseiged, belittled Cathays?  We will rebuild.

Pictures: University of Wales; Hannah Waldram/The Guardian