Look for the positives in Mount Oswald development
The mere mention of Durham becoming a campus university has been met with outrage by some students, alumni and even prospective applicants. As one of only five collegiate universities in the UK, even the university’s prospectus cites the college system as being fundamental to the ‘Durham Difference’.
Indeed, Durham’s pastoral collegiate system offers students the best of both worlds – the opportunity to participate in a multitude of sports and societies at a more informal level together with an authentic community sentiment in University accommodation that’s simply not replicated in the impersonal halls of other universities (whilst avoiding the prison-like confinement of Oxbridge). Again like the ancient universities, the history of the University and consequently much of its estate is intertwined with a presence in the medieval city; therefore it’s hardly surprising that loyalty to these two defining aspects alone has already sparked much hostility towards the university’s development plans.
One could argue, too, that a further divide between city proper and campus may also exacerbate the divide that already exists in the University’s structure between the Durham and Stockton campuses.
However, on consideration of the details, certain pillars of the opposition camp’s argument begin to crumble. Barely over a third of the University’s fourteen colleges are in fact situated on the Bailey, the old beating heart of the City – yet Bailey bar crawls, Philosophy seminars on Old Elvet and of course queuing in Tesco’s are as much part of any Hill student’s experience at Durham.
In fact, non-Bailey college students arguably enjoy an even wider range of opportunities than those at colleges situated in the centre, from the extensive on-site sports facilities at Hild-Bede to not having to share a room for at least some of their undergraduate life. Yes, the Bailey may be pretty, but is it really worth sacrificing the quality and comfort of facilities for a slightly shorter walk to lectures? Indeed nowhere in Durham is really more than a twenty-minute walk away.
Perhaps the most major aspect of College provision is accommodation, and despite apprehension over a mixed-college hall this is one aspect of the Durham experience the Mount Oswald complex would vastly improve. Needless to say, large chunks of the University’s college builds already look overdue for refurbishment and the Bailey colleges, listed buildings and castles aside, are renowned for having some of the worst accommodation. Provision at the complex could open the option of warm, ensuite rooms to all students, even if their college does not provide it, or limits it to returning students.
Another likely related benefit would be the provision of self-catered accommodation, currently an option for students at only two Durham city colleges. Not only would this be a desirable and more economical option for many first years – who can feel as if their routine is locked around mealtimes – but it would offer the desired greater degree of independence to returning students who wish to avoid the hassle of finding a house, yet still enjoy this commonplace form of university independence.
The debate over mixed college halls is really a nonissue; the plans for Mount Oswald would vastly improve the college integration that already occurs to a much lesser extent in sports and societies, enabling students to more easily branch out and socialise outside their college community.
The Mount Oswald complex’s ambition of a new ‘community hub’ for students also reinvigorates the debate over the role of the DSU and its increasingly tired looking headquarters. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the outmoded, lifeless (even in term-time) somewhat stagnant atmosphere of Dunelm House reflects and perhaps even exacerbates the increasing stagnation of the DSU’s prominence in students’ minds, particularly in comparison to college JCRs.
An innovative and purpose-built new hub would ensure the physical image of the DSU catches up with its already forward-looking ethos, as inevitably students seem to currently base their opinion of the Union on its metaphorical packaging. The fact that a new hub would presumably be at the heart of a mixed-college community almost guarantees the DSU’s revival, as it would become the convenient bar and social space of choice for a multitude of students, thus working its way back to the forefront of their minds.
Being located in the middle of an accommodation complex would also rectify the problem of the DSU’s current perpetually empty feel, as being the closest bar it would be incredibly difficult for it not to be busy – and students attract more students. Perhaps there would finally be a situation where DSU bar takings start to give the colleges stiff competition!
The long-standing city-orientated structure of the university evidently holds a certain nostalgia for many (who perhaps have been turning a blind eye all these years regarding expansion and relocation onto the Hill) but it is important to look beyond familiarity and see the many ways in which the Mount Oswald development will enrich, not mar, the Durham experience for students in particular. Indeed, in different times perhaps a more twenty-first century take on Durham’s ‘difference’ is in order.
A balance of city and campus need not rid the University of its distinctive character and atmosphere, but simply complement it. We can retain the College system and close link with the Cathedral, whilst enhancing the student experience in line with rising expectations and facilities at other top universities.