Aberystwyth: welcoming newcomers and preserving local culture

We returned to Wales this week and visited Aberystwyth, a university town in Ceredigion, a predominantly rural local authority. Although our citizens’ panel thought that migration had brought benefits to this part of West Wales, they were also concerned about cultural change and threats to the Welsh language.

I agree with the benefits and the business side of things, but culturally I think immigration has had a negative impact on Wales. I don’t want to sound nationalistic and there are positive aspects of immigration, but culturally it has been negative.” (Citizens’ panel participant).

Aberystwyth is a seaside town with 14,000 permanent residents, whose population is swelled by students and holidaymakers. The main employers in the town are National Library of Wales, the hospital and the university which has just over 7,000 students. Most of the skilled jobs in the town are with these three employers. Otherwise, most of the other jobs on offer are lower-skilled. As a consequence, the town and the surrounding hinterland have experienced population loss. Better educated young people often move away to progress their careers.

The hospital has a diverse workforce, as does the university. EU nationals, mostly from Poland, have also come to work in the town and in other parts of Ceredigion, although their numbers are small in comparison to other locations. Some 6.7% of the local authority’s population are estimated to have been born overseas – similar to the average for Wales (6%). International students are a notable migrant group in Aberystwyth, although they are seen by locals as students more than as migrants. Most of our citizens’ panel was happy for the numbers of international students to be increased.

Aberystwyth felt welcoming when we visited. In one survey in 2016 it was ranked the friendliest town in the UK. Our citizens’ panel believed that migration had brought many benefits to their town, bringing skills and filling vacancies. Immigration was not a particularly salient issue, although the group that we met thought it was something that people talked about more since the EU referendum. Some 56% of Ceredigion voters chose Remain and a YouGov poll in March 2016 suggested that the town of Aberystwyth was the most pro-EU place in the UK.

Generally, the citizens’ panel liked the added cultural richness that the university had brought to Aberystwyth. At the same time, several members of the group felt that migration threatened Welsh culture, including members of the panel who were both young and old, and irrespective of their views about immigration and Brexit. 

“I like multiculturalism. That’s why I go on holiday – to experience other cultures. But migration should not be at the cost of your own culture being wiped out in your own country.” (Citizens’ panel participant).

Ceredigion is a bastion of the Welsh language. Data from the 2011 census showed that 47% of its population spoke Welsh. Seven of the ten members of our citizens’ panel spoke Welsh as their first language. It was clearly something they held dear and was a major part of their personal identity. But bilingualism in Wales raises some unique integration issues – particularly about the duty of migrants to ‘learn the language(s)’ and about a bilingual education system.

We have also held citizens’ panels in Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Swansea and Wrexham. In these locations, our participants did not feel migrants needed to speak Welsh to integrate into their new homes. But in Aberystwyth, the group felt that new arrivals (including English incomers) who made an effort to learn some Welsh would find it easier to integrate, particularly into tight-knit rural communities.

My grandparents told me about Italian prisoners-of-war and Poles [who arrived in 1946] who spoke Welsh. Some of them you would not have known they weren’t Welsh really.” (Citizens’ panel participant).

We heard of examples of new arrivals learning Welsh, including a group of new Polish migrants who worked in a meat -packing factory near Aberaeron and sent their children to a Welsh-medium primary school. We were told “when it comes to Welsh, the Poles often make more of an effort than the English.”

The Aberystwyth citizens’ panel did not expect all new migrants to become fluent Welsh speakers. But they did want newcomers to find out about Wales and its culture, and learn some of the language. These demands seem reasonable and most people expect similar in England.

Wales has a bilingual education system and parents can choose between Welsh- or English- medium schools and nurseries. As a group who might move on – to other locations in the UK or wider – many international migrants have opted for English-medium schools for their children. This has led to increasing educational segregation in some parts of Wales, with Welsh-medium schools having a less ethnically diverse intake.

Social integration matters. Meaningful social contact between migrants or minority ethnic groups and the receiving communities help break down misconceptions each group may have about the other. Schools are one institution were contact between people of different backgrounds is easy to achieve – at the school gates, in the classroom and the playground. So it is important that central government responds where social contact is hindered by a segregated education system.

How should policy makers respond? It is important that bilingualism in Wales does not hinder integration. In some English local authorities such as Bradford and Oldham, school-linking projects have been set up. In Bradford, the acclaimed Linking Network brings classes of children together to undertake shared activities. This project has helped to break down some of the anxieties and misconceptions that white English and Pakistani Muslim children have had about each other in this city. The Linking Network’s approach is now being extended to other local authorities across England. Perhaps there is a need for such a scheme in parts of Wales.

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