As the higher education sector booms, the cost of a university education is also booming.
With tuition fees set to rise to as high as £9,500 per year, universities across the UK are trying harder than ever before to attract and maintain the attention of the world’s brightest students.
But it is not just tuition fees that are rising. The cost of living in many of the UK’s university towns and cities is rising so exponentially that students from poorer backgrounds are facing the prospect of effectively being priced out of education.
These developments have coincided with unpopular government decisions to scrap the maintenance grant for students starting university in the 2016/17 academic year, which offered those with a household income of less than £25,000 an amount of £3,387 per year.
Although the grant has been replaced with higher loans, available to the value of £8,200, the idea of adding to the increasing debt has not been warmly received by students. Education experts have warned that this will discourage those from disadvantaged backgrounds from applying to university at all.
Durham University has been subject to criticism amongst existing students for increasing college accommodation fees for the 2016/17 academic year to over £7,000, for raising tuition fees to £9,250 ahead of a Parliament decision on whether or not to remove the current tuition fee cap of £9,000, and for the steady decline in value of the Durham Grant over the past five years.
Student reactions against these economic changes have resulted in the University being widely condemned by Durham Students’ Union and its president Alice Dee, Durham University Labour Club, and the Durham Left Activists, formerly known as Trevelyan College Left Society, who organised the “Funeral for Accessible Education” in December last year.
Most recently, George Stanbury, a third-year English and Spanish student at Grey College, founded the group Durham for Accessible Education after petitioning Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor and Warden of the University, to reverse the latest increase in tuition fees.
The group aims to ensure that Durham is a “welcoming” and “diverse” place for all by campaigning, petitioning, and communicating with the University about financial issues and other forms of student support.
“Coming to Durham is getting more and more expensive — the cost of living in college has gone up by almost 25% in four years and a standard room is now over £7,000,” George told Palatinate.
“In that same period, new students from low income backgrounds are receiving £2,000 less every year in bursaries than those who started in 2012. It’s clear to see that Durham is a much less accessible place than it used to be.”
George cited that the University’s ambivalence in responding to student concerns about and challenges to cuts in financial support warrants the need for greater, more effective communication on these issues.
“It’s been very difficult to receive clear information from the University, and this is something that needs to change.
“On key decisions that affect every student’s experience, such as accommodation and the Queen’s Campus dissolution, tuition fees, and the cut in financial support for students, the University have not done enough to consider student views,” George said.
[blockquote author=”” pull=”normal”]“On key decisions that affect every student’s experience, such as accommodation and the Queen’s Campus dissolution, tuition fees, and the cut in financial support for students, the University have not done enough to consider student views.”[/blockquote]
“During our campaign, Durham for Accessible Education have encountered staff who have refused to engage with our concerns or explain their decisions. This isn’t the strong leadership Durham deserves and takes students for granted.”
The University said in a statement that it is “committed to encouraging the very best and the brightest students, regardless of background, to come to Durham, as set out in our Access Agreements.
“For the 2016/17 academic year, we are investing over £10 million to help students meet upfront costs and to deliver access, student success and progression activities.”
Durham for Accessible Education have further condemned the University for using a 2015 MoneySuperMarket study, which found Durham to be the most affordable university out of the top twenty in the UK.
George told Palatinate that the MoneySuperMarket survey “placed equal measure on the price of beer, weekly rents, crime rates and the cost of insurance, and from these results Durham was rated as the best value university.
“This study does not truly represent what it’s like to be a student at Durham. We spend far more on our rents than on beer and many of us don’t have cars.
“The University have repeatedly used this stat in local press instead of engaging with real issues of affordability. This shows a misunderstanding of a real student experience and complacency when there is far more work to be done.”
When asked by Palatinate about the broad issue of the cost of living in Durham, the University referred to same 2015 MoneySuperMarket survey, stating that it “strives to offer good value for money to its students.”
George went on to describe the impact that financial changes are having on the University as a whole, insisting: “I think these decisions can only make Durham a far less diverse, less inclusive place.
“I know prospective students who felt that Durham was too expensive for them, and we as a community are missing out on their wonderful talents and skills.
“We should be able to welcome anyone to Durham, irrespective of their financial background, but the lack of action to make Durham more accessible and affordable is stopping this and it’s unacceptable.”
[blockquote author=”” pull=”normal”]“We should be able to welcome anyone to Durham, irrespective of their financial background, but the lack of action to make Durham more accessible and affordable is stopping this and it’s unacceptable.”[/blockquote]
Durham for Accessible Education has published a series of anonymous testimonials by students on their Facebook page as part of their “Out of the Red and into the Purple” project, which emphasises the impact of financial strain upon individuals.
The impact of extensive financial change across the board at Durham is beginning to show its mark, George says. “Students are really feeling the squeeze with such a steep increase in rents and withdrawal of support.
“We’ve heard time and again from students that feel unable to participate in the many clubs and societies in Durham because they can’t afford to, and often leads to them feeling isolated and even depressed.
“During summers, some students are turning down internships due to financial concerns, harming their employability. Most worryingly though, students are borrowing large sums of money from their parents, placing their families in debt and causing acute stress.”
In order to alleviate some of the challenges faced by poorer students, Durham for Accessible Education will continue to lobby the University on issues like rising tuition and accommodation fees.
“We are campaigning for better financial support for students, and have a petition calling for support to be where it was in 2012, tripling support for people who receive the maximum student loan and giving £1,000 a year for those who used to qualify for a maintenance loan,” George said.
“We also want to work with the University to look into more flexible accommodation options, providing more affordable rooms for students who are being priced out of coming to Durham.”
When asked about its intentions to increase the amount offered to low income students through the Durham Grant, the University told Palatinate: “The Durham Grant Scheme is reviewed on annual basis and the value of the Durham Grant Scheme bursary for 2016 entrants remains at £2,000 (a minimum amount of £1,800 was agreed with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), but the University is maintaining the £2,000 level). This is given to UK undergraduate students where the annual household income is below £25,000.
“For the academic year 2016/17 nearly £4.5 million will be paid out by the University to support its Durham Grant obligations to almost 2,000 students.
“The University also offers approximately 100 Supported Progression scholarships every year which are worth up to £5,500 annually for students who come from the North East, Cumbria and Yorkshire and the University envisages spending approximately £1.5 million on Supported Progression students in 2016/17.
Highlighting its contingency plans following the cessation of the Access to Learning Fund (ALF), the University “will provide extra hardship funding for UK undergraduate students where the annual household income is below £42,650.”
Durham’s Academic Registrar, Dr Michael Gilmore, said in a statement that “Durham is a highly selecting institution with demanding degree programmes.
“The University works hard to identify those with the greatest merit and potential amongst applicants from all backgrounds and to ensure that financial support is available to those with a low household income.”
George drew attention to the fact that decisions made now will harm the environment of the University.
“I think we’re at a really crucial time for the future of our university and it’s so important that everyone does their bit to make sure Durham remains an affordable, accessible university.”
Photograph: Durham University