Durham University is notable for its thriving extracurricular scene, with 234 societies ratified by the DSU covering the branches of sport, arts, culture, volunteering and more. However, with the impact of Covid-19, it is to be expected that the ways clubs and societies in Durham run will have to change to some extent. Anna Marshall, the DSU Opportunities Officer for the academic year 2020/21, chatted to us about the charms and challenges of her role so far and explained what new and returning students can expect from Durham societies in the coming terms.
Marshall has been extensively involved in extracurricular activities throughout her three years at Durham, participating in sports, taking on editorial roles with Palatinate and joining the executive committees of Amnesty International and ECO DU, all whilst also having a part-time job in her first year. She explains, “I’m passionate about social justice, but a less pretentious way of saying that is I care deeply about an equal right to happiness and opportunities for self-development.” She sums up her focuses for this year as “proactively responding to the climate crisis, bolstering student communities to allow them to communicate and thrive together, and conducting a thorough review of our democratic processes to adequately implement changes which fix this.” This last comment follows the disputes over last year’s RON campaign, which advocated voting for no candidates to express dissatisfaction with the DSU’s election process and other operations.
Marshall acknowledges that, in the past, there has been a “sense of frustration” between the DSU and societies’ executive committees, and insists that, this year especially, “clear communication between student groups and the student union is essential”. Marshall is currently in the process of creating student group ‘networks’ to try ensure the voices of each society are heard this year. These networks will allow executive committees of “similar societies” which are facing “similar challenges” to “meet together, discuss their issues and then communicate clearly to me what is needed”, as well as give them the opportunity to “devise among themselves how they can work together to solve some of these issues”.
The impact of Covid-19 makes the role of Opportunities Officer this year particularly challenging, with Marshall admitting to the struggles of attempting to provide the best opportunities for students while abiding by the ever-changing government guidance. Covid-19 means that Marshall’s role so far has been “highly reactive” and at times frustrating, requiring “making many decisions I never wanted to have to make” and “spending much of my time in meetings which become out of date as soon as the next government guideline is published.” She is sympathetic and “fully understand[ing]” of students’ frustration with the restrictions, saying that the “the greatest challenge” she has faced “is telling these inspired leaders that they cannot yet act and must await further instruction.” While acknowledging that “this year will be different in many ways”, Marshall remains optimistic that “once given clear guidance and allowed to flourish, Durham students achieve all but the impossible.”
So just how will Durham societies be operating this year? Well, there is going to be a definite unavoidable decrease in the number of in-person events. Marshall explains that “societies which are able to run their events via discussion panels online are in a much more stable position for this year”, as they can continue operations regardless of changes to governmental guidelines. Societies which “rely upon close physical contact” like sports “will need to substantially review and potentially delay their core activities until social distancing measures have changed”, though “this does not mean they cannot operate” in some capacity, for example by holding online classes or workshops. Social events will have to be held “predominantly over Zoom” for Michaelmas term and this will be re-examined in Epiphany term. Marshall says that “right now, socials cannot be prioritised”, and maintains that “it is possible to form very close friendships online.” Rather than making it harder for Freshers to join societies this year, Marshall is hopeful that “freshers will confidently adapt to the new conditions”, arguing that “there is a possibility it will actually be easier to join societies” with meetings online creating “more accessible environments” in university societies.
Therefore, while the university is taking what precautionary measures they can, from having “eye-watering amounts” of hand sanitiser available in the DSU to conducting individual risk assessments for each room booking, Marshall explains that it is partially impossible at this point to lay down blanket rules. For example, it “has not yet been confirmed how the university will allocate rooms for societies”, though she can tell us room bookings will be managed “centrally” and will prioritise “groups which could not do their activities online”. There are also no exact instructions available on how many people in a society can be in one room at a time, “as the government’s guidelines are not only temporary but also flexible to change due to different room sizes, purposes or household sizes”, though the rule of six is “a helpful baseline”. College societies will be required to follow a “broadly similar policy”, as “households within colleges are still unable to mix”, so will not be able to form their own bubbles. Marshall also praises the efforts of college common rooms, who she says have been “working tirelessly on a plethora of issues.”
Photo: Luke Minchella