Biggest Durham University donor cuts ties over Covid-19 restrictions

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Durham’s biggest benefactor in recent years, Mark Hillery, has indefinitely suspended all support for the University in protest against its Covid-19 measures this academic year.

The Collingwood alumnus has said he will not “visit Durham again while there is a single Covid-related rule imposed on the students”. He has also resigned from Collingwood’s external advisory board and informed the College and University that he wishes to cease all dialogue.

The University received £7million from Hillery between 2015 and 2021, making him its biggest individual donor during the time period. The hedge fund manager has been an actively engaged alumnus for more than two decades, hosting numerous finance-related talks and gaining notoriety among students for regularly putting large sums behind Collingwood bar.

Collingwood has been the principal beneficiary of his donations, receiving £4million in 2016, a record donation to the University, which funded the 200-seater Mark Hillery Arts Centre, as well as a yoga and pilates studio, bar conservatory and expanded JCR common room and gym.

“The same pedantic and ineffective policies that place students at the bottom of the pile are simply continued”

Mark Hillery

Most recently Hillery sponsored the construction of a recording studio and music practice rooms, due to be completed later this year. A Durham spokesperson expressed appreciation for Hillery’s philanthropy, describing him as “a generous benefactor to the University” and adding that his “contributions have improved our students’ experience and will continue to make an impact for many years to come”.

The University also stressed that their Covid-19 approach “has always prioritised the health, safety and wellbeing” of students and staff.

Hillery told Palatinate, “It’s a very depressing state of affairs; I had always felt a very close connection and obligation to the university and its students […] it feels odd to be so disengaged, but it is what it is now”.

The alumnus had contacted the University criticising its Covid-19 measures on multiple occasions prior to his decision. Hillery’s “step back” from his relationship with Durham University comes primarily in reaction to the decision to implement stricter Covid-19 policies than government guidelines in the 2021-22 academic year, including the decision to temporarily return to online learning at the start of this term.

“Urgency that should have been displayed to fully normalise [the University] to the same status as the rest of society has not been there. The same pedantic and ineffective policies that place the priorities of the paying students at the bottom of the pile are simply continued and refined […] it’s tiring to watch.”

Whilst University restrictions largely fell within the Government’s guidelines last academic year, measures this year have gone beyond official advice on numerous occasions.

The University returned to online teaching for the majority of courses in the first two weeks of this term, despite Department of Education guidance telling universities they should “ensure that they deliver face-to-face teaching without restrictions” in tandem with the removal of ‘Plan B’ restrictions in January.

Durham explained the policy by citing the need to “monitor local and national case rates, with a changed community prevalence, and ensure that our Covid controls are appropriate”.

“If the University turns around and finally drops the insanity as a statement of policy then great, but it’s all far too little too late”

Mark hillery

The Government also advised that “providers should continue to make efforts to reduce the risk of transmission where appropriate”, but stressed that “they should not put in place measures which limit the teaching and learning outcome for students, or significantly limit the wider activities offered”.

A ‘test to participate’ scheme has also been in place at Durham throughout the year which requires students wishing to participate in ‘wider student experience’ activities – including visiting college bars, playing college sport, and attending formals – to have evidence of a negative lateral flow test taken up to 48 hours prior at a University testing site.

Face coverings continue to be compulsory throughout Durham University spaces, though government guidance maintains that “no student should be denied education on the groups that they are, or are not, wearing a face covering”.

Durham is not unique in having more restrictions than the Government legally mandates. A survey of 47 universities at the start of the academic year revealed that only 13 would be offering mostly face-to-face tuition.

For Hillery, the policy is “an unequivocal disgrace”, saying “the Government was very specific about higher education establishments not resorting to online teaching again after the break; yet they virtually all did so anyway.”

Throughout the pandemic, Durham has insisted that its priority is the “health, safety and wellbeing” of staff and students and it has frequently worked with local authorities to determine measures and minimise community risks.

A University spokesperson said, “We have been guided at all times by the local trajectory of the pandemic which varied at different times across the UK. We have carefully taken into account a wide range of information and perspectives, including Government guidelines, prevailing conditions and advice from local Public Health colleagues.”

Last academic year, despite measures beyond government mandates, Durham City had the highest Covid-19 case rate in England towards the end of Easter Term. Measures included the ‘Test to Participate’ scheme, a total spend of £580,000 on LFT testing centres, and student exclusions due to breaking Covid-19 government guidelines. The Covid-19 rate in Durham peaked at 2169.6 per 100,000 people in the week before 19th June 2021 – significantly higher than the second highest in England, 1547.2 in Hyde Park in Leeds.

The University is due to review the current test-to-participate scheme and mandatory use of face coverings in University buildings at the end of this week. Hillery acknowledged this but stated that “if the University turns around in a few weeks’ time and finally drops the insanity as a statement of policy then great, but it’s all far too little too late”.

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5 thoughts on “Biggest Durham University donor cuts ties over Covid-19 restrictions

  • Durham’s rate was the highest in the country precisely because of the university’s enormous testing regime!

    Reply
  • Speaking as a Collingwood alumnus, balls to him. He chose to donate. He doesn’t get to dictate the welfare needs of the University’s members. If he wants to flounce like a two year old, let him.

    Reply
    • point is that most of the rules are ineffective

      Reply
      • Are they ? How come then with stricter rules, Scotland has 25% LOWER deaths and infections ??

        Reply
  • Good on him. The university’s restrictions have consistently gone beyond what is required by government guidelines, and are disproportionate. Requiring masks in university buildings actively goes against govt guidelines for example (which is why the aggressive marshals are gone from the library). They restrict a section of society that is at almost no risk from COVID itself, but has been asked to shoulder the burden of COVID mitigation policies. At least Hillery cares about the students, unlike the university itself. Some gratitude towards the students who have sacrificed so much, despite not being at risk, would be appreciated. Time to get back to normal.

    Reply

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