By Sofya Grebenkina
It would be unreasonable to say that over this past term a general spirit of discontent has not manifested itself at Durham University over the problem of rising fees. The latest protest, the Funeral for Accessible Education, took place on the 8th of December, and featured the Grim Reaper leading a procession of students, mourning their no longer affordable education, represented by a makeshift coffin. The protest follows the decision of the University to raise the college accommodation fees by 3.5%, to over £7,000, a rise which outstrips that of inflation. It also encompasses the concerns over the University’s fee hike for next year’s international students by £2,000.
To add salt to the wound, a Freedom of Information request has revealed that one third of those fees have been spent on “capital borrowing and investment”. This means that much of the money paid is not spent on repairing and renewing the accommodation itself but on external expenditure, including investments into defence contractors and fossil fuels. An earlier campaign for the divestment of the University’s funds from fossil fuels, organized by the Durham Young Greens and People and Planet, clearly displayed the student body’s concern with the issue.
Following the protest, the Vice Chancellor released a statement declaring that the issue of fee rises will be discussed and consulted with the wider student body. Yesterday, the Trevelyan College Left Society, which participated in the organization of the Funeral, published their reply to the Vice Chancellor, outlining their problems with the current handling of the matter. Meanwhile, Palatinate Politics has interviewed several of Durham University’s own political societies, to gauge where they stand on the recent fee rises.
Rhys Tanner, President of the Durham University Conservative Association, claims that he does not condone the “University’s decision to increase accommodation fees to this magnitude” as students will not be receiving “value for money” on their education. He believes that much of the money obtained from the fees is being “wasted” and that the University should be focused on establishing “outsourcing contracts where appropriate, and increasing the efficiency of where our money goes”.
He nevertheless acknowledges that some rise in fees may be warranted. “As a collegiate university with a rich sense of history, I do expect that our accommodation fees may be slightly higher than some other universities as each of our sixteen colleges have their own bar, student support teams, management staff, JCR or SRC, and other college-specific features, as well as the fact that many of us live in classic buildings.” Furthermore he did not attend the protest as he claims to “largely disagree with the wider aims of the Trev’s Left Society and the demands laid out by the other left-wing university reform groups.”
GK Teh, Chair of the Durham University Liberal Thinkers, similarly argues against the rise of accommodation fees, saying that they “have risen at a rate that is far beyond monetary inflation rates”. Furthermore he objects to a rise in fees provoking a “prejudice on the grounds of wealth”, which goes against liberal values and “prevents some of the best minds from achieving the best they can be”. GK believes that this prejudice creates an attitude which breeds an “ignorance of your relative luxury”. GK has attended the protest and sees it as a “good start”, yet simultaneously acknowledges that more should be done in the future to sustain momentum.
Jamie Penston Raja, President of the Durham Young Greens, envisions a bleak future for the prospect of diversity in Durham University if the Vice Chancellor does not take sufficient action in preventing the rise in fees. “The student body at Durham is already overwhelmingly white, middle class and private school educated. Unfortunately, if these changes are not revoked, then this is only likely to get worse.” He looks forward to negotiating a “price freeze” with the University and hopes that the Vice Chancellor will be “open to listen to an issue with sufficient student support”, as he has done previously with the divestment campaign. The problem, as he sees it, is that education is becoming inaccessible even with the “full support of the government”. He believes in the effectiveness of the method of protest, and sees it is possible that, if necessary, a protest can be assembled on University open days in order “to warn potential students and parents about the affordability of accommodation”, bringing into dialogue current students, future students, and potential alumni. As a more concrete starting point, Penston Raja is willing to affirm the viability of ‘Student Living Rent’, an idea by Sean Berry, “where accommodation expenses will take up no more than 35% of an average student income, into a policy workable for the ‘college experience’”.
While some of the student body struggles for the recognition of this issue, the response from the University has been mild and ineffectual. While the DSU has organized meetings where students can air their views, various societies have met with the University Executive Committee, and the Vice Chancellor has distributed a mass email. Penston Raja disdains at the fact that “the Vice Chancellor didn’t make any acknowledgement of reversing the fee increase in his pathetic email” and dialogue has so far not reversed the fee increases either. However, one thing is for sure: there will be mounting opposition from various political societies who have so far unanimously expressed their discontent with accommodation fee rises, as they stand.
Featured photograph: Charlotte Warmington via Facebook