Students challenge the Vice Chancellor at DSU’s Question Time
Durham Students’ Union (DSU) hosted ‘Question Time’ on Tuesday for students to ask the Vice Chancellor and panellists about student life at the University.
The panel, consisting of the Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Professor Liz Burd; The Durham Union Society President Elect, Elise Trewick; The DSU President, Mike King; and St. Mary’s College JCR President, Amy Annette, joined the Vice Chancellor, Chris Higgins, in answering over thirty questions from the audience.
Despite the event’s advertisement, only 26 students attended the debate, raising questions about the involvement of Durham students in university politics. The event was, however, broadcast live on Purple Radio, and many students sent in questions via Facebook and Twitter, rather than taking to the floor.
Many questions focussed on the allocation of funding by the University, with points raised about the £22 million surplus, changes in access to the Durham grant (so that livers out will no longer be eligible) and the high student to staff ratios in comparison to Oxbridge. Questions were also raised regarding the ‘hidden costs’ of Durham, such as gowns and formals, which are not included in accommodation fees. Liz Burd noted that many of these costs are optional, but the Vice Chancellor added that with the increase in fees there will be many changes, and the sports fee will no longer be charged separately.
The Vice Chancellor also revealed that he has donated £20,000 per year, for the last four years, to the University, yet stressed that his main commitment was through time.
The panel were also asked, ‘What is the Durham Difference?’, as Durham bucked the national trend with an increase in applications despite the fee hike. Mike King believed that the difference related to the number of college societies, “There are 230 DSU societies, and most colleges have another 30. In addition, Durham has one of the oldest debating chambers in the country, and offers the chance to live in a castle and graduate in a cathedral.” Elise Trewick stated the importance of the college system, to which Chris Higgins concurred that the “community ethos” and “collegiality”, alongside good student to staff ratios, were influential in not deterring students from applying this year.
However, threats to collegiality frequented the floor in relation to the expansion of the Science Site and the suggestion of moving colleges off of the Bailey. The latter was quickly refuted by the Vice Chancellor who said that the University was looking into building more college accommodation on the Bailey. He later stated that “JCRs are a critical part of Durham”, retaliating against claims of an encroachment to JCRs’ independence.
When asked about the event, the Vice Chancellor said that he was “Very pleased to be part of it: I think that the more communication there is between myself, the DSU and student body, the better.
There were many concerns that I was not aware of because they are being dealt with at college level. All students need to learn what are the right routes to get things done, and often they are through the DSU.”
Emily Weir, of St Mary’s College, felt that answers couldn’t be gained immediately as “A lot needs to be done over time… although I’ve been here for four years, and I have raised my concerns in the past, so I hope something comes of it this time.”
Archie Dallas, next year’s DSU President, “absolutely loved the event” although noted that “there is always an array of questions that people don’t know a lot of detail about, so the emphasis is on us to ask questions that can be answered honestly”.