38-week lets: time for students to make a stand


The issue of 38-week lets first reared its ugly head earlier this year, when the option for freshers to sign up for the standard 33 weeks mysteriously disappeared from several colleges’ websites. The decision to do this had apparently been taken back in November last year; yet it seems no student representative bodies were aware until Easter, when the websites were changed.

From then on the story is a catalogue of misinformation, secrecy and deception. Last year’s DSU President Sam Roseveare was censured for failing to represent student opinion accurately, a facebook group was set up in protest and College JCRs and Presidents Committee fought the University, eventually forcing a swift retreat.

Now it seems the University has decided to switch tactics. Stealth has been replaced by denial. Last year they decided to keeping quiet about a major policy change with an impact upon the lifestyle and bank balances of thousands of students before unilaterally bringing it in and hoping no-one would notice.

Now they are now denying completely that anything is happening so as to avoid debate. Their statement that protest is ‘premature’ is laughable given the fact that they are clearly willing to decide important policies without any consultation whatsoever with student bodies. If anything, protest is overdue.

Their attitude should be seen as part of a greater trend of preserving the privilege of the few at the expense of the majority. Recent protests in London were a reaction to ‘privatisation’ in universities across Britain, as well as the increase in tuition fees. Because at most universities it is the government who is the customer, not the student, and because universities are essentially businesses, students’ interests are being consistently sacrificed in the interests of income.

Education Minister David Willetts claims that Government policy puts students ‘at the heart of the system’. This is simply untrue.  The rise in tuition fees means that poor students are being priced out of the market in the interests of profit for the government, just as longer lets mean students will struggle to pay their rent so that the university can make money.

On neither policy has the student had a say; neither the Government nor the University has listened to the people who are actually going to be affected. Fears that a Conservative party in government would fail to act in the interests of the disadvantaged seem to have been realised. The massive privileges of businesses and corporate giants which sparked the Occupy movement are relevant in every sector, not least education. Tuition fees have shot up, the NHS is threatened and the Government shows no sign of seriously chastising the financial sector for its shoddy ethics.

We can, and will, make a fuss about 38 week lets. The University’s management of the issue has been outrageous, and it is an almost universally unpopular policy with students. The reasons for this are extensive and have been discussed elsewhere; suffice to say that however much spokespeople for the University talk about ‘enhancing the student experience’ and ‘offering flexibility’, everyone knows that the real reasons behind the move are financial, pure and simple. The University gets more money in exchange for fewer services. This, whichever way you look at it, is a seriously bad deal for students.

The problem is that at, by protesting, we are at best simply delaying the policy. The University backed down last year, only to try it on again this year. This is not something they are going to give up easily. Longer lets are not an isolated policy. They are part of a greater trend of commoditisation in our education system, both at Durham and nationally.

However, this does not mean we should give up. Jokes about Durham students being apathetic are all very well, but we need to take serious action to ensure that we are not being taken advantage of. We must start to see ourselves as active members of the Student Union and present a united front, otherwise we have no hope of stopping the University from doing literally whatever it wants.

Civil disobedience is our only source of power. Even if you don’t usually protest, even if you are uninterested in politics and even if you happen to agree with recent coalition policy, you have to recognise that this issue is more than worth missing half a lecture for. It’s something that is going to have a direct impact on all of us and it is being done, without our consent, right under our noses.

A stand desperately needs to be taken nationally on our culture of privilege. Let’s start with this issue, here and now, by showing the University that students will not be walked over in the name of profit.

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