Last summer I was part of the team based at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Modern British Studies focused upon delivering the Activist Selly Oak Project. Financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Activist Selly Oak brought together Birmingham students and longstanding members of the Selly Oak community to co-produce a microhistory of social and political activism in the suburb between the 1950s and the 1990s. Intentionally lively, upbeat-and ever so slightly subversive-in tone, the project culminated in a series of events, an exhibition and a publication aimed at engaging and involving the widest possible audience. Things public history projects, regardless of scope or scale-aspire to; but which in our case- because the project was instigated and managed from the university-were especially important.
If you are unfamiliar with the geography of south Birmingham, Selly Oak is a primarily residential area located immediately adjacent to the University of Birmingham campus. Whilst cheek by jowl for decades, Selly Oak and the university developed in relative isolation from each other. A pattern of development that was neatly summed up by one of our oral history participants (a life long Selly Oak resident) who described the campus during his youth as representing “Another world… the other side of the wall… A place you might go to work as a cook or cleaner”.
Which is not to say that there was complete disconnection between Selly Oak and the University. Activist Selly Oak uncovered a rich history of mutually interdependent organising that benefited both communities. In the 1950s and 1960s this took the form of staff and students involving themselves in the activities of local political, religious and campaigning associations. A typical example from the mid-1960s being Stuart Hall, a precariously employed researcher in the English Department, lodging on Gibbins Road; whose name and address appears on the membership list of the Selly Oak branch of the CND.
Towards the end of the 1960s, in line with general activist trends; student and wider community activism began to take on a more broadly focused, less formal, more ad-hoc character. Whilst less stringent (and less successful) in its demands than other contemporary actions at LSE, Essex, Warwick and elsewhere, our oral history participants vehemently felt that the University of Birmingham occupation in 1968 was a catalyst for greater politicisation and subsequent involvement in community action by university members.
This assertion is supported by surviving contemporary documentation. University of Birmingham students and recent graduates played a key role in the establishment of south Birmingham Claimants Unions in 1969, a form of direct action which widened and morphed over the course of the 1970s into involvement with a widespread Selly Oak squatting and tenants rights movement. The high watermark of this moment was the creation-in microscale-of an Italian style social centre in a squatted shop at 768 Bristol Road. Known as the Selly Oak People’s Centre this venue became an activist meeting space, hosting workshops, performances and gigs including benefits for the Grunwick strikers and Rock Against Racism. Day-to-day, activists affiliated with the centre-including university staff and students-provided practical advice and support. For instance: two Law School alumni who came on one of our walking tours of key sites uncovered during the project told us that they had volunteered at a legal advice centre based there.
This pattern of politicised mutually supportive action continued across the 1980s, with the Guild of Students facilitating amongst other things; the production of the Selly Oak Alternative Paper (SOAP) between 1980 and 1983 and joining with Selly Oak residents to support the Miners Strike in 1984-85. Well established ties between students and community activists are celebrated in the Guild’s Annual Reports from the 1990s. A notable example from the 1996-7 report being the Guild picking out its successful alliance with community groups in Selly Oak to oppose the planned alignment of the A38 relief road on environmental grounds as a major achievement. This campaign had seen its members and members of the wider community jointly write to, petition and protest against the City Council’s plans.
As a reader you can doubtless tell from the narrative mode I have adopted that this period of rapport between student and community activists in Selly Oak has not sustained. Indeed-as hinted at the start of this piece-many of the community participants in the Activist Selly Oak project were far from favourable in their opinions of the university as an institution, and indeed; of its students. This is because since the 1990s much of Selly Oak’s housing stock has been purchased by buy-to let landlords who have converted former single household dwellings into houses in multiple occupancy (HMOs).
For the suburb’s established community the changes were sudden and dramatic. By the 2011 census 16,500 people in Selly Oak ward out of a total population of 26,000 were aged 20-29, almost all of them students. Now comprising 65-70% of the ward-and especially concentrated in Bournbrook and other sub-districts by the University-HMOs today make up nearly one hundred percent of the housing stock on some roads, whilst yet more students, especially those from overseas; reside in purpose built blocks.
Whilst effects of capitalism neo-liberal turn upon the mission and staff of higher education institutions is much discussed, its effects upon the communities immediately adjacent to them has been far less documented. To borrow conceptually from the geographer David Harvey, what had happened in Selly Oak since the 1990s is that the tripling of the university’s student population over the last three decades has decanted the settled working and lower middle class community that historically inhabited Selly Oak’s terraces and semis in favour of a more profitable population.
Landlords from the early 1990s onwards recognised that Selly Oak’s housing stock was relatively cheap. So, as house prices rose in the comparatively expensive Harborne, Moseley and Kings Heath areas where Birmingham’s students traditionally resided (in a relatively dispersed manner) leading bedsits and HMOs there to be sold off to single occupiers; they bought up and converted Selly Oak houses enmass. By the 2000s-as in comparable areas in other British university towns-a tipping point had been reached with local services and amenities catering to non-students shutting and being withdrawn increasing numbers of Selly Oak residents sold-up and moved on meaning even more properties were converted for student occupation. For those involved in converting, managing and creaming off the rent from them, it is an incredibly lucrative business; today when they change hands student lets in Selly Oak sell for at least as much as comparable properties in wealthier parts of the city based upon rental values alone.
In this way the government’s policies to encourage university expansion and the adoption of financialised operating models has effectively unravelled the social fabric of Selly Oak. This rent seeking alliance between capital, the state and the managers of higher education institutions has undone the conditions that made possible the mutually supportive campaigning environment that facilitated the campaigns and movements that Activist Selly Oak uncovered and charted.
It is little wonder that many of the current and former Selly Oak residents that we spoke to disposed and disorientated, resentful of the university on their doorstep. There are also detrimental effects upon the students crammed into the area, reported in the local paper in a manner simultaneously farcical and tragic. Voyeuristic pictures of seriously substandard, or just bizarre student housing, mounds of rubbish and belongings left at end of session; and most striking; the surrealistic image of students wading through flash flooding-because overdevelopment in the area has changed the area’s water table-abound.
Even darker is the effect that living in such a monoculture has upon students’ safety and wellbeing. When our student volunteers spoke about living in Selly Oak the real and perceived fear of crime featured highly. Areas such as Selly Oak are often derided as student bubbles, but in a time of austerity and increasing desperation on the part of those in danger of falling between society’s yawning cracks; the lack of a settled community of “eyes on the street”; has contributed to the area becoming a hotspot for petty crime.
Beyond immediate threats the deeper personal wellbeing of students in such areas is also under question. The effects that the pressure of constant competition and striving for distinction have upon student wellbeing, mental health and development, are much discussed and must only be exacerbated by living in such warped locations. Interestingly our oral history participants and those who contributed personal archives to project recognised this. They commented on how much more pressure students today are under to pursue a very narrow vision of “success”. It is hackneyed, if not blinkered; to look back to higher education prior to the 1990s as a halcyon age. But today’s ghettoised, hothoused, students who feel compelled by everything around them to strive for magic circle internships as opposed to honing their skills by helping out an ad-hoc, pro-bono clinic in a squat are surely rendered all the more atomised, vulnerable and detrementially detached from society?
When Modern British Studies designed and embarked upon Activist Selly Oak there was a hope that it would in some small way serve to bridge the gap that has grown between the student and non-student community. What we discovered when we got down to work and went out into the community was a far richer tapestry of connections and shared projects than we could have ever envisaged. What we also uncovered was a far bigger story, a worked case study of how capitalism in its current moment works to undermine and exploit communities and impede collective action.
When they first wrote in the 1840s about how capitalist exploitation renders asunder all existing beliefs and social relations Marx and Engels could not have envisaged the social conditions and systems of relations which make possible modern higher education and its foundational place within the contemporary knowledge economy. Far beyond its Heritage Lottery mandated remit our project discovered lying amidst the sea of builders skips, to-let signs and pizza cartons that characterise the student district of any contemporary British city, a story of dispossession and social ties rent asunder as dramatic as any induced by any preceding wave of industrialisation or deindustrialisation. And hopefully, on a more positive note; that universities and the communities that surround them have come together before, and that there is no reason why they cannot do so again.
An alternative version of this piece has been published by History Workshop Online.