By Ben Sladden
On 18th October, the University announced a 3.5% hike in College accommodation fees to £7,422.
This, alongside years of appreciating fees, has prompted a swift backlash amongst some of the student community.
The cost of a catered single standard room for undergraduates will increase from £7,171 to £7,422, while standard self-catered rooms will cost £5,195 a year, up from £4,891.
Two days later, over 100 people (by Palatinate estimates) turned out for a protest against the fees increase.
“This decision from the University reinforces the unfortunate image of Durham as an elitist institution.
Palatinate spoke to some notable voices in Durham regarding what they see as the wider consequences of the University’s decision to increase fees.
Harry Cross, a postgraduate student activist who has campaigned over Durham College rents, told Palatinate: “Despite the North East having the cheapest property values in the UK, we now have among the most expensive student accommodation in the country, approaching London prices.”
George Walker, who was involved in the protest, stated: “This decision from the University reinforces the unfortunate image of Durham as an elitist institution.
“I think the latest fee hike is yet another event that shows how out of touch senior University staff are with Durham students,” he added.
Tom Harwood, NUS Delegate, said that the protests and campaigns against the fee hikes are “broadly” representative of the student body, stating to Palatinate: “The idea that some may be priced out of a college experience is disgraceful.”
Despite the University carrying out outreach work to target North East England applicants in low-participation areas, some have highlighted cases of prospective local students feeling priced out.
Harry Cross stated that at a University Open Day, a local headteacher told him that many of his students received offers to study at Durham through access agreements whereby they received preferential offers, but turned them down as “they [could not] afford the rent.”
Palatinate also spoke to Sheehan Quirke, Van Mildert VP Welfare Officer, who cited the case of some students from the Tees Valley area, home to some of the most deprived parts of the country, who chose to live out in their first year due to the price of college accommodation fees.
Sheehan stated that this led to a lack of integration within the College for these students, and suggested that in many cases, led to “definite effects on mental health”.
“There is a very real minority of students who are deeply concerned by both the high cost of accommodation and other college related fees (e.g. JCR levies) and as a result there are many freshers who have quite serious concerns about being able to make friends,” Sheehan said.
Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), Owen Adams, told Palatinate: “I appreciate the financial pressures faced by students and we are working with student representatives to review our charges.
“In particular the Residential Accommodation Differential Pricing Group is considering ways to achieve a greater range of charges via differentiated pricing – a new model that could be introduced in 2019/20, if it is agreed.
“In addition, the Durham Grant is available to home undergraduates who have a residual household income of £25,000 or less as assessed by Student Finance England (or equivalent) and a College accommodation bursary is available to first year students for whom the SLC residual household income is between £25,000 and £35,000.”
Last Thursday’s Sutton Trust report called on universities to better target low participation neighbourhoods through use of contextual data. However, figures in the report demonstrated that less than 6 per cent of entrants to Durham came from low-participation neighbourhoods.
But both Harry Cross and Sheehan Quirke suggested that the University had no qualms about raising rents in the past due to the assumption of Durham students’ wealth.
A NatWest report recently revealed that Durham University students receive the most financial assistance from their parents than at any other Russell Group institution.
Sheehan said the fact that Durham students are “drawn from a very homogenous group”, contributes to a lack of engagement in activism surrounding issues such as College accommodation costs.
However, George Walker countered the “common belief that Durham students are apathetic” by stating there had been a “high level of engagement” surrounding College fees.
“I believe that the student body is highly supportive of the campaign for a more affordable and accessible Durham and I look forward to seeing students engage in even bigger action to hold the university to account in the coming weeks,” George said.
The Durham Students’ Union #RippedOff campaign, calling for a slash in college fees, has received over 2,000 signatures on Change.org.
Beyond the Durham student community, Harry Cross suggested that the decision to increase College fees could have a knock-on effect on the wider local community.
“The University is the biggest landlord in the city and a study by StuRents a few years ago demonstrated that spiralling college rents have a knock-on effect on private rents in Durham,” Cross alleges.
Cross stated that the spiralling rents encourage a “business model of landlords who do not invest in their properties seeking instead to extract high rents from short-term tenants, thus deteriorating the housing stock of the city.”
Palatinate contacted Michael Costello, a long-term Durham resident and Secretary of the Durham University Residents’ Forum, who spoke in contrasting tones about the need to turn the scales of the perceived ‘studentification’ of Durham City – described emotively by Michael as “this once fine city”.
Michael stated: “The key to this rebalancing is to return to the truly collegiate nature which the university promotes thus returning family homes to families and the 3,000 residents in the housing waiting list.
“College fees are obviously key to promoting this rebalancing.”
Photograph: David Dixon via Wikimedia Commons.