Amid recent media attention, is Durham University really declining?


You could be forgiven for thinking that Durham University is an institution on its knees, struggling under the weight of one scandal after another, as it apparently tries to escape the ‘woke students’ dragging it down to the ninth circle of Pronoun Hell. It’s a narrative that has been subtly pushed by national outlets for the last year, but is now being thrown in our face with all the subtlety of a large bulldozer. Journalists no longer need an explicit event to prompt discussion over Durham’s demise, leading to last week’s Spectator article openly questioning whether Durham’s glory days were behind it. By glory days, the writer (a former Durham student) was referring to socials where groups of students dressed as Jimmy Saville and children respectively. Very normal stuff!

When you’re examining an institution so closely, cracks are always going to show

Durham University’s existence begs the question: What if you had an Oxbridge-type university, without the same institutional respect that the two elders command? Whenever Oxbridge get involved in a scandal, such as the decision to bar Amber Rudd from speaking at Oxford, blame is put on the national student body, in a more general generational attack.  When similar events happen at Durham, our university community and the people in it are the ones under siege. Anger isn’t directed at abstract groups of “woke students” or “the youth of today”, instead specific students are targeted and harassed in media campaigns. The Spectator pleaded that “Durham students don’t want Durham to be at the centre of the culture war” as if the University wasn’t shoved there by media attention in the first place, but the focus on Durham is a self-fulfilling prophecy: when you’re examining an institution so closely, cracks are always going to show.

Durham has always been known for its not-quite-Oxbridge identity crisis, but now that crisis is manifesting as a real problem. Durham can’t blend in with more modern universities and can’t hide behind the same shield of prestige as older ones, leaving it out in the open with no cover. The rose-tinted glasses the pundit class reserve for Oxbridge don’t apply here. It’s clear the culture war warriors know this, because the sights are trained firmly on Durham, to the point where small issues are blown way out of proportion. The support sessions for students engaging in sex work was a good example of something that would have passed by had the microscope not been perpetually hovering overhead.

Durham isn’t declining but is facing unprecedented levels of national attention

Like with any university, Durham has its tensions. There are a lot of people in a fairly small city; obviously, there are going to be clashes. But I humbly propose that making Durham better and fixing cultural problems might be a tad easier if we didn’t have to dodge metaphorical sniper fire every time we ask questions about racism and classism.  Durham isn’t declining but it is facing unprecedented levels of national attention, attention that may well get worse. So many issues that have fed Durham’s prominence in the culture war remain ongoing, most notably the processes concerning Tim Luckhurst and South College, and if more developments occur, there’s every chance we’ll find ourselves in the spotlight again. I think it’s important we remember that students working towards a positive, hard-working atmosphere should get to decide what Durham should look like, not anyone else.


2 thoughts on “Amid recent media attention, is Durham University really declining?

  • Having just had the misfortune to read the Spectator article (to make sure I knew of what I was about to speak), I wouldn’t be too worried. First, it’s the Spectator, so it’s a fairly reliable source of a terrible take. Second, the last paragraph of the article betrays all. Someone who doesn’t having all their prejudices challenged just wants things to be like “in the good old days”, which for him is five years ago. It’s an epic toddler wobbly. Third, as an ex-Collingwood person, as far as I’m concerned Mark Hillary shouldn’t let the door slam on his arse on the way out. If he chose to push his money the college’s way in a nicely tax efficient manner that’s his decision, but he should realise that it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) give him any decision making powers in the institution. Fourth, if you choose to believe league tables, fine, but Durham performs relatively consistently across them. Notice the cherry picking of a single headline figure, the mark of a bad faith argument.

    If you believe that article you’d think that Durham was a hive of villainous wokery, instead of the rather comfortable oasis of privilege it has always been. It certainly was in my time, and in spite of attempts to suggest otherwise it remains mostly that way now. There is a choice to understate the serious complaints made about several groups, and that is very convenient for a publication like The Spectator to grind an axe in its ongoing culture war crusade. It’s a tired, hackneyed tactic; it’s tedious.

    I read it so you didn’t have to. It’s bollocks.

  • to be honest the article has it correct

    the university as everyone who works their knows has declined rapidly over the last 10 years

    with the concerns just being buried and not acknowledged


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