By Jazmine Bourke
There are certain things in life you don’t like, but you just have to accept. For example, a very disappointed four-year-old me had to come to terms with the fact that ‘ginger hair’ was not something she could request in her letter to Santa, nor could it be achieved by aggressively chugging Irn-Bru every day. Six-year-old me had to accept that, although Maisie from after school club did in fact steal my Polly Pocket, pulling her chair out from underneath her was probably a bad idea and perhaps I deserved the following sanction. Even now, twenty-year-old me is (gradually) coming round to the idea that re-watching David Tennant’s Hamlet for the millionth time does not count as revision, especially with eight other Shakespeare plays that require attention.
When it comes down to it, there are lots of ideas you have to admit are firmly in the realms of ‘unrealistic.’ But this applies to nowhere near as many things as people would have you believe. Often, the things that are branded as unrealistic are the most attainable, and done so out of disillusionment or, worse, plain deception. This is where the #RippedOff campaign comes in.
Before continuing, it’s probably necessary to address the glaringly obvious: no, the #RippedOff campaign is not a new concept. If there were universities back in the Stone Age, there would probably have been cave drawings of ‘Cut the Costs’ protests, with angry political banners strung from mammoths or giant sloths (I accept my historical analogy may be somewhat inaccurate). Within my two years at Durham alone, I can instantly recall three previous campaigns with remarkably similar, if not identical, aims: the Funeral for Accessible Education, the Durham Alternative Open Days, and Durham for Accessible Education have all, through their various means and methods, fought for the financial rights of students. Come third, fourth, and even fifth year, you would probably accumulate a small shopping list of such movements.
Thus, it seems almost inevitable that sceptical voices will emerge, querying whether the goals of #RippedOff and its brethren – to freeze and ultimately reduce the college accommodation fees for students – could ever be realistically attainable. But rather than being a sign of failure, the history of accommodation campaigns behind #RippedOff are in fact its source of strength: not only does it demonstrate the persistence and determination of the student community, its ability to adapt and learn from previous attempts, but it also fulfils a fundamental need within the student community.
Because we do need it. According to the figures produced by the #RippedOff campaign itself, the cost of college accommodation has risen by 50% since 2009, despite inflation rising by only 23%. Even disregarding this fact, it remains clear that Durham University far outstrips the prices of university accommodation for other institutions in the region: whilst a catered non-ensuite room will relieve you of £5325 in Newcastle, the standard catered room in Durham will cost you a grand total of £7171, almost £2000 more. Whilst this would be perhaps slightly more excusable with a solid system of financial support in place, once again Durham falls flat. With the not-so-recent cuts to the Durham Grant, anyone with a household income over £25,000 is automatically disqualified from consideration. It is estimated that two adults working full time will earn £29,952 p.a. on the minimum wage. Despite the undoubtedly fantastic support provided to those students falling below the £25,000 threshold, the Durham Grant shuns many working-class students purely on the basis that they have two working parents.
I could continue hurling figures at this article until the cows come home (and if you ever broach the subject a few ciders down, I probably will). But no matter how many statistics I cite, five or twenty-five, the ultimate outcome remains the same. The only financial commitment Durham makes to its students is that it will fail them, determinedly, consistently and continually. Without the persistence of campaigns such as #RippedOff, the army of protests that have happened in the past and will occur in the future, this would be undoubtedly be set in stone.
I’m no idealist. I have no grand vision of accommodation fees crumbling into dust, whilst staff members fire £1000 wads of cash at unsuspecting students. But I do believe that, like many social changes, the reduction of college costs will be a gradual descaling and deconstruction of present injustices. It may not have half the satisfaction of instant gratification, but continual dispute, dialogue and negotiation between the university and its students can affect change. Each movement can build on from what was learned in the last, and each time could see the university give way that little bit more until something significant is achieved. Something significant has already started to occur in the past couple of years: not only did the Alternative Open Days reduce the proposed inflation of the 2016/17 accommodation costs, but Durham for Accessible Education was successful in getting the university to backtrack entirely, lowering its proposed tuition fees from £9,250 back to £9000.
I can see the appeal, even the logic, behind scepticism. But being sceptical does not help the students who max out their overdrafts on rent, and it certainly doesn’t negate the fact that lowering accommodation fees is not only viable, but crucial. So before you roll your eyes, or scroll past the petition, or ignore the organised protests that the #RippedOff campaigners have organised, ask yourself this: if there’s even the slightest chance of an impact, wouldn’t you rather try?
Photograph: Durham Students Union