By Jazmine Bourke
As far as top institutions go, Durham University is miraculously incompetent. I don’t mean this in an academic sense. Don’t get me wrong: I could go for days on the various departments and procedures that have failed – continue to fail – my friends in their studies, but that’s not the point I’m getting at. What I mean is on a bureaucratic level, Durham’s actions are shambolic. They’re the kind of thing you expect to see contained within the borders of a satirical comic, or, failing that, a documentary on America.
They’re the kind of thing you squint at suspiciously in your Facebook newsfeed, trying to work out whether someone has an incredibly sick sense of humour or you’re just suffering a caffeine-induced hallucination. They’re the kind of thing that, if they weren’t so brutally real, they’d be laughable.
And I must admit, part of me wants to howl regardless. After every protest, every campaign, parley and claim to care, the University are raising their college accommodation prices again. £7,400+ for the standard college room.
If you’d asked me theoretically how I’d feel finding out, there would be quite a few emotions I could have predicted successfully: disgust, anger, appalment. One thing I wasn’t banking on was astonishment. Not at the fact that Durham would do it – that seems obvious enough from the two years I’ve been here – but at the pure shamelessness of the university’s stance. Whatever I may think of Corbridge and Co., one thing I know is they’re not idiots. There is money grabbing, there is exploitation, and then there is a direct attack on the accessibility for working-class students.
The University are willing to freeze an almost entire demographic out of their statistics for more money, and they’re not even bothering to hide it.
I’m not under the illusion that most universities are somehow benevolent with their letting costs. You only have to look at the rent strikes across Bristol and London to see how extortionate other institutions can be. But when it comes down to it, I struggle to think of another university so blatantly elitist and classist as Durham.
The North East is the cheapest housing bracket in the UK, and yet our University dares to churn out prices hot on the heels of London. In an alarming amount of cases, Durham even manages to eclipse the capital: a quick Google is all it takes to find £7,200 (King’s College), £7,250 (UCL) and £6,279 (Imperial). This is before you consider that our southern counterparts get up to £2,000 more funding for their studies.
Expertly oblivious, Durham decimates financial support in the same breath with which it calls for diversity. Anybody can tell you about the absurd cuts to the Durham Grant within the past several years, but even more recent is the University’s attacks on Supported Progression: students on the scheme will have their bursaries slashed in half, dropping from £5,500 p.a. to little over £2,000.
The phrase ‘magic money tree’ has been thrown around carelessly in 2017, but it occurs to me that there is none more magical than the one that Durham University expects of its working-class students. Most don’t qualify for the maximum loan. And yet, even if they did, the costs of accommodation would leave them with little over a grand for the year. From this grand, how are you expected to lay down a £350 deposit? How are you supposed to foot JCR costs, buy a gown, your course books, afford train fare, a social life? How are you supposed to live happily, healthily, like a human being who isn’t constantly counting the coins in their purse?
In the midst of all these questions, Durham blinks and whistles nonchalantly. It has no answers, and it intends to give none. We have money for investment in fossil fuels, it seems to say, we have money for artwork, for expansion, for relocation, for tearing down a Grade 2 Listed building and rebuilding it from the rubble. The only thing we don’t have money for is you.
It’s been three years since I applied here, thus in some ways, it’s incredibly difficult to remember what it was like to do so.
But I do remember some things: I remember I’d had my heart set on this place for two years; I remember pouring over example reading lists and deciding which authors to name drop in my personal statement; I remember squinting at the page on bursaries and thinking that there must be some mistake. And now, I imagine 17-year-old me looking at accommodation prices. Pulling out my then-battered iPhone and doing some calculations. Quietly scratching Durham from my UCAS list.
I can imagine all I like, but money isn’t figurative, and neither are rent increases.This is going to be the reality for some teenagers this year and it’s on Durham’s head.
What do Durham students think?
Students have been left wondering how this increase can be justified when much of college accommodation falls short of expectations as it is, but a far greater worry is that this will ultimately serve as yet another barrier to accessing a Durham University education for those from lower-income households. This is not simply a case of students throwing a tantrum at not getting their way but is linked to a deeper feeling that the decision-makers at the University are becoming increasingly alienated from the people impacted by those decisions.
There have been many attempts by Durham students to influence the University but one is left wondering whether the #Ripped Off hashtag is sufficient. Instead, it may be useful to look to other campaigns such as the UCL ‘rent strike’ in which hundreds of students refused to pay rent until a reduction in charges was achieved.
Can Durham University justify its latest college fee rise? With a single catered room now costing over £7,400 for 2018-19 (a rise in line with the RPI measure of inflation), the opprobrium of students is understandable.
Nevertheless, I do not believe the rise in itself deserves much criticism. It is true that RPI exceeds current wage growth (meaning a greater financial burden in real terms for parents of new students, whose income is supposed to supplement the maintenance loan). Yet the decision to raise college fees again will have negative consequences for the University – it generates bad publicity and might even discourage prospective students. It follows, therefore, that the University would only raise fees in order to pay for genuine increases in upkeep costs, like catering.
The more important issue is the sheer size of the fee because it forces almost all students to take out the maximum maintenance loan that they can, and in some cases, even this support is far from sufficient. In this area, I fear that we are unlikely to see a reduction anytime soon.
With the increase in college accommodation costs by the university we are left with the feeling of being ignored by our own institution. Durham’s student accommodation is already one of the most expensive when compared with other universities across the U.K. The problem is that most students assume that what the university says is the final word.
As students, we should challenge the unfair decisions taken by these authorities, who are so very detached from our perspectives. The rise to an average of £7,422 a year is outrageous and will limit the student experience, since many freshers will not be able to meet these college costs even with a maintenance loan.
All students should work together in solidarity and affiliate with the #RippedOff campaign, which needs to appeal more to the difficult reality that students face, in order to succeed.
Graphic: Ben Sladden