DSU President: The University wants to widen participation, but their actions suggest otherwise

By Alice Dee, Durham SU President

College accommodation fees are expensive, exclusionary, and unjustified. Despite the discontent that students have shown over the past few years, they are still spiralling at an alarming rate. When I first began my term as President of Durham SU, we had some success negotiating the increase in accommodation fees for 2017/18 when the University agreed to increase fees in line with the Retail Price Index (RPI)— a measure of inflation—by 1.6 per cent.

For eight years prior to this, the cost of college accommodation has risen at significantly higher rates than inflation, making accommodation at Durham one of the most expensive in England. In real terms, we, as Durham students, are paying over £1,100 more than we would be if charges had increased in line with inflation.

I’ve launched the #RippedOff campaign to condemn historical price hikes and push to break the cycle of annually inflating fees that are already artificially high. Accommodation fees threaten the college, and fundamentally, the Durham experience. Any Durham student knows that colleges are more than just halls of residence: our colleges and their community are intrinsic to life in Durham. A key part of the collegiate community is having undergraduates and postgraduates of all year groups living together in their college. In recent years, understandably, the rising fees have seen less returning students opting to return in their final years back to college.

To add insult to injury, we are all too aware of the varying standard of accommodation across Durham University. The backlog in renovation projects across the residential estate is profound. Most recent upgrades to college facilities have been funded through alumni donations or contributions from the Common Rooms, begging the question: where does our money go?

Durham also still has shared bedrooms, with as many as 40 per cent of freshers sharing in some colleges. As the former JCR president of a college with many shared rooms, I see the benefit of this set up in many cases. However, the students randomly allocated to a shared room are given no personal space of their own and are only afforded a discount of around £200. Clearly the quality and facilities of our accommodation varies greatly, but why don’t our prices?

Clearly the quality and facilities of our accommodation varies greatly, but why don’t our prices?

I’ve spoken to students on open days who’ve said they’ve been put off even applying to Durham because they feel priced out by high college costs. And I’ve shown students around who fell in love with Durham but then realise they can’t afford to take up their offer. Currently, as a first-year undergraduate student you have to receive written permission to live out of college, giving the appearance of a near-compulsory extra cost of over £7,100 to come to Durham—not including tuition fees. Since 2013 we have seen the Durham grant (bursaries available to students with a lower household income) systematically decreased and landlords  in the city putting up the cost of private housing as a direct result of accommodation fees.

Durham is stereotyped as an elitist university and the higher costs only prevent students from lower-income backgrounds being able to apply to Durham. I think we all agree that the wonderful experience that we’ve been lucky enough to have in Durham, in part because we were able to afford to come here, is something that we want students from all walks of life to be able to experience too. Durham University claims to want to widen participation at University but their actions speak differently and we must do something about it.

I firmly believe that we are being ripped off by the cost of our college accommodation. The quality is inconsistent, yet the prices are at a premier rate. What would you have spent that extra £1,100 on? What if you couldn’t afford to come and study here? To show your disapproval of the outrageous costs that students are being #RippedOff for, sign our petition and join our peaceful demonstration outside the Palatine Centre on Wednesday 7 June at 10am.

Photograph: Durham Students’ Union

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