By Jazmine Bourke
This is probably going to sound really weird, but last term I felt like Stuart Corbridge personally offended me. I’ve never even seen our Vice-Chancellor in person, let alone come anywhere close to being in conversation with him. Yet I’m finding it increasingly difficult to separate his name or position from a tiny spike of annoyance in the back of my brain.
It sits there and festers, like old bread, or milk that should have been chucked out weeks ago. Either way, it settled itself comfortably in my head around December and has refused to move since.
I probably seem spectacularly petty. If you need a moment to judge me, please take your time. But afterwards, allow me to explain: towards the end of last term, whacking out my final formative in the library, I came across a copy of Palatinate. On the front cover was Professor Corbridge, amiable grin and all, with the headline Durham offers “very good value for money,” as he told Palatinate.
I have been involved in student protests and campaigning for a while now. I can tell you that our college accommodation fees have risen by 20 per cent(2012-2015), or how each rent hike is mimicked by the costs of the private sector. I can tell you about Durham’s continued refusal to divest from fossil fuel companies despite the multitude of universities leading the way. You only need look at the Picasso in the Palatine Centre and compare it with the overwhelmed Counselling Service to see there is a gross misjudgment in the way the University spends its money.
I could fill the entirety of the Bill Bryson myself with reasons as to why Corbridge’s statement was offensive, condescending, and ultimately wrong. But the one thing that really got me was this: our Vice Chancellor wanted to lecture us on the ‘value’ of money. On a £231,000 salary a year, does he remember what the value of money actually is?
Last week, on the 8th February, Durham Young Greens organised VC Day. It was a march which started on Palace Green and ended outside the Palatine Centre, with drums, whistles, and a card signed by multiple University societies with the intention of being handed to Professor Corbridge. Why? On that day, amongst an entangled mass of zero-hour contracts, minimum wage and job insecurity, the Vice Chancellor had already earned the same amount as the average Durham employee earned in the year. Starting from 1st January, it only took him 39 days to surpass the mean annual earnings of his work force- even less to eclipse those within Durham University who are continually refused a living wage.
I would happily take a lesson in the value of money from these people. I don’t claim to be a queen of economic efficiency myself. Like most, I will bemoan the cost of Granny Smith’s in Tesco whilst simultaneously dropping a tenner on cider. But here at Durham, there are members of staff who don’t necessarily know when their next shift will be. They don’t know how many hours the university is going to give them in months to come, or whether it’s going to be enough to live on comfortably. There are junior lecturers who take on additional night shifts in bars to cover insufficient pay. The very people who mark our essays and take our tutorials scrabble for summer jobs, knowing the University will fire them over the holiday period to ‘save money.’
In an anonymous testimony, sent to, and verified by, Durham Greens, one academic wrote “there is no mechanism on a zero hours contract to allow for career progression…My domestic situation is such that I can live this way at the moment. But it is clearly not sustainable in the long- term. There is no pension.” Amongst all this, Corbridge can justify himself almost double the annual salary of our Prime Minister. He can look at students who’ve lost their Durham Grants, lecturers regularly balancing multiple jobs, and smiles for the camera as he explains the value of money to us.
So, you’ll excuse me if I say when it comes to our Vice Chancellor, I’m not the biggest fan. I don’t view him as a whip-cracking, tyrannical overlord, but I do view him as a man almost entirely out of touch with the very people he runs the University, for staff and students alike. I could, of course, be entirely wrong, and would love to be proven otherwise.
So if Professor Corbridge does genuinely grasp the value of money, next time I would like him to acknowledge his own extortionate pay cheque. I would entreat him to re-evaluate his own bank account and increase the earnings of those who make his job possible, so they can enjoy even a fraction of the financial security he does. Then, and only then, would I like to see his face on the front of Palatinate again.
Illustration: Charlotte Way