Does Durham truly offer ‘good value for money’?

By Edoardo Lanfranchi

Before the end of Michaelmas term, in an interview published in Palatinate, Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge made a very proud statement about Durham offering “good value for money” and a “world-class student experience and education” to its students. He then justified the upcoming expansionary plans and the transition from Queen’s to Durham campus, all envisaged in the ambitious ‘Estate Masterplan’ approved by the University last year as aiming to enhance these strengths.

According to Professor Corbridge, improved education, an improved student and college experience, and a more international environment are the main goals the University policies are pursuing, and what he says sounds very sensible.

But unfortunately, the reality looks quite different. The main issue with Professor Corbridge’s claim becomes clear when placed in the context of the limited contact hours afforded to courses in Social Sciences and Humanities. Many students would simply like more. As a Course Rep in three different departments, I have run surveys, collected feedback and talked to various members of staff; the vast majority seemingly agree that more contact hours would mean improved learning outcomes. Having tutorials once a week instead of once a fortnight, for a start, and having longer lectures to give expert lecturers the chance to actually talk about their research and not just rush through some generic slides that all look a bit alike. Wouldn’t that truly be a world-class education?

Independent reading, of course, is a major part of our degree but contact hours are what we are going to university for in the first place; tutorials are what make the difference in the best universities. So why not have more?

Most people to whom I have posed this question – including senior professors – looked up to the sky, rolled their eyes and said something along the lines of ‘sure, weekly tutorials would be better, but that’s not going to happen, is it?’

Some modules are taught by tutors who are PhD students. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and many are outstanding at what they do. But, primarily, they are researchers, and to teach they need training and guidelines, alongside constant support and internal communication.

Personally, I could name at least two departments where that does not happen at all, or at least not sufficiently, and the problem seems to be more widespread than that. Why can’t the lecturers that actually teach the modules have a more active role in tutorials?

This, too, I asked in meetings, and the answer was that mostly, they lack the time to do so. They are required to produce a certain number of publications, attend meetings, keep the bureaucratic machine operational, and end up with little time to teach. But enough on academics; what about the ‘world-class student experience’ and collegiate system that make Durham such a special place in which to study?

Can we really be so certain that such a rapid increase in the number of students on Durham campus will improve student and college experience, as professor Corbridge has suggested? Roughly 2,300 students will be coming over from Queen’s Campus in the next two years, and the University is likely to take up to 4,000 more students before 2027, with many fearing that the city will be overcrowded.

Thus, concerns about the increasing town-gown divide, the restrictions on the use of college facilities and the risk of a hike in renting prices seem to be well-grounded. In fact, the two main DSU presidential candidates, Megan Croll and Harry Cross, both campaigned for the safeguard of student experience and affordability with regards to the Estate Masterplan.

If college life and student experience are at risk, and if the ‘bubble’ that separates students from the local community in Durham might get even thicker, shouldn’t we be more cautious about increasing the number of students?

We all spend at least £9,000 on tuition fees every year, and most of us don’t really know where that money goes. If we lack the budget to pay for more contact hours in Humanities and Social Sciences because the University is prioritising other cost items, Professor Corbridge (who earns £231,000 a year) should be very clear about it.

If there is a tradeoff between the size of the University on one hand, and its unique student life and the strength of its community on the other, there should be a more serious debate on the matter. Of course, what I am referring to is not unusual at all in the UK nor in most western countries. Universities and their ranking systems work this way; teaching is widely sacrificed to boost research output and private investments.

But we should at least be transparent about it. Durham does not yet offer adequate ‘value for money’ to all students; it needs to spend a copious amount of money on things like ‘artwork’ or continuous expansion because, unfortunately, this is how universities work in 2017. And the Vice-Chancellor going on about ‘value for money’ while pretending the above issues don’t exist will not ameliorate the situation.

Photograph by Spencer Means via Flickr and Creative Commons 

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