By Zoë Boothby
Durham claims to be a world-class university. In prospectuses, in its social media, in propaganda videos: validate me!, it begs.
But if Durham is indeed the world-class university it claims to be, then its resources should also be world-class. Although the University realises this standard in some areas, in others it fails spectacularly. And with its planned expansion, things are only set to get worse.
No doubt you will have felt the squeeze in the Bill Bryson this term. You will have found yourself setting your alarm earlier than you did last year, or the year before. Get to the library after half nine, and your chances of finding a seat are slim-to-none. It feels like Billy B is bursting at the seams.
Yes, the library has always been busy during Easter term, but, as a decrepit fourth year, I can testify that it has never been this busy. I have never had to spend so much precious study time circling like a vulture, waiting to snatch whatever place I can. “We’ve created 100 new study spaces! We’ve even added some to the DSU!” the University screams at us. But what about the influx of 5,600 extra students you need to accommodate for over the next 10 years?
Already study spaces are scarce and accommodation prices are rocketing
These infrastructure problems are only going to become more apparent as the University’s expansion continues. The absorption of Stockton campus, still not complete, has already resulted in a shortage of study spaces; on- and off-campus accommodation prices are through the roof. The pressure to build more college accommodation is threatening the collegiate environment the University prides itself on. And this is before the potentially six new colleges to be founded by 2027: where will they go? One of these colleges has already been the subject of scrutiny, with Durham’s decision to auction off its naming to the highest bidder proving rather unpopular.
And the concern of students is, of course, only one small factor. Local residents have consistently expressed their outrage at the University’s disregard for the City that accommodates their institution. And it seems the City isn’t thriving like the University (supposedly) is: one only has to look at the recent closure of shops along Silver Street to see the potential impact that expansion has had on local businesses.
Durham is not just a university. It is first and foremost a city, a county, a place of historical importance, and home for tens of thousands of local residents. As students, we are far from the most important group in this region. Fresh out of school or gap years, thousands descend on the City annually and most leave again in three or four short years.
Students are far from the most important group in the region
Though the University provides jobs and supports the local economy, we as individuals do not invest in the City long-term. Demand for student accommodation is forcing families out of the city centre and jeopardising Durham’s future.
But, for once, it is the University, and not the students, who have exacerbated Durham’s ‘town/gown’ divide. Throughout this process, the University have stressed the importance of ‘working with’ and ‘listening to’ the local community; this, however, seems to be little more than lip-service.
It took local residents fifteen months to get the reception of the University they desired. And it seems likely that the University will, inevitably, do exactly what they want. If they haven’t listened to students complaining about accommodation hikes, why would they listen to their neighbours’ complaints about expansion? The recent forum, ‘University and City: Growing together’, could probably have been more aptly titled ‘University and City: Growing apart’. “If you want to make Durham City into Durham Campus then we’ll bugger off,” one attendant remarked. It might be a bitter divorce.
Who is this University for? It doesn’t seem to be for students or local residents
Another resident asked: “Does the University have to be bigger to be better?” Durham’s track record would suggest not. The University already struggles to provide study spaces, affordable accommodation, adequate mental health provisions. And this is not to mention the safety concerns associated with expansion that have already been flagged up in national press: the tragic death of a student earlier this year prompted The Guardian’s scathing criticism of the planned growth.
All of this begs the question: who is this University for? It doesn’t seem to be for students, and it definitely doesn’t seem to be for local residents. Durham wants to think globally, to compete on the world stage, as is its right as a university. However, if this comes at the expense of this historic city, I dread to think the cost. If Durham University overstretches, it will fail not only itself, but also its student body and the local community.
Photograph: Hana Kapetanovic.