Debate: DSU is an irrelevant institution


By Charlie Taverner

When you first applied to Durham, chances are you would have read or heard about the “Durham Difference”. Every student here knows it was not an empty promise. The advantages of the college system make Durham so fantastic, unique and special, and, while performing a range of roles, it also renders a central students’ union – our DSU – completely irrelevant.

In many universities the union forms the focal point of the campus, but Durham life revolves around the college. Admittedly, within Durham city itself, the DSU is centrally located. With Kingsgate Bar, Riverside Café and a maze of function rooms, there are certainly enough things to do inside the bizarre concrete structure. In fact, if it was in Newcastle or Leeds rather than Durham, then it would probably be a much-visited venue.

However, colleges are such a hub for students that there is no need to come down to the DSU to meet or socialise. If you’re from as far afield as Josephine Butler or even as close as Hatfield, you can just relax in your college JCR, drink in the bar or chill out in your room with friends. After all, why wouldn’t you? With social facilities and, at least in your first year, all your friends living on site, the college is a ready-made university community.

The college dining hall, bar and grounds are also a perfect spot to meet up with those no longer living right next door for a drink, a grand formal or, of course, the annual college-day. This is especially true in in later years, when living out spreads all your friends far and wide over Durham.

In fact, the college days are a potent example of what colleges mean to students. You spend the day rolling around the grounds emblazoned in your college colours and slogan of choice, listening to music and partying late into the night in the bar. Many say it is their favourite day of the year.

Yet it’s not all about the good times. Nearly everyone runs into some difficulty at some point during their university life – be it related to work, finances or managing the new lifestyle. When it comes to providing support the college is the first and most effective port of call.

The DSU Education and Welfare Officer (EWO) co-ordinates welfare provision across the university as part of the sabbatical team. This means organising university-wide campaigns and training college welfare officers. But, for those in trouble it is the direct contact that matters most. The college welfare representatives are on the front line, dealing with problems and have an extremely high level of expertise.

Some might argue that central organisation and training from the EWO is essential. However, colleges have deep pools of expertise to draw from. On the student side there is a Welfare Officer, one or two assistants and, often, a welfare committee to help organise help, campaigns and activities. Amongst the staff, a Senior Tutor and them hierarchy below them can provide a more mature, official point of view. Perhaps they could provide the same training and perspectives that the EWO can.

And, despite the sometimes patchy effectiveness of the college tutoring system, it provides even more assistance for students when they need advice or support. When it’s at its best, the college tutorial system gives Durham students unique perspectives from outside the university bubble.

The good work done by the DSU sabbatical officers should not be denied for a second. They all contribute massively to the running of university life. But when it comes to representation and leadership, the college JCRs do an equally effective job and are far more relevant to students.

The JCR president and executive are not unseen figures, whose names aren’t even known by some people, but are fully-integrated into the college community. Most people know who their JCR president is and would feel comfortable approaching them on a wide range of issues – simply because they represent a much smaller group of people. The college system of representation is more personal and relevant to Durham’s students.

When it comes to sport and societies, the college system is the key factor in making Durham’s extra-curricular participation rate so incredibly high. At the highest level, Team Durham is important for pulling the very best sportsmen and women together and giving them every chance to succeed against other universities. Also, university-wide societies like your very own Palatinate or the major artistic groups allow talented people with similar passions to group together. The DSU certainly facilitates these groups to come together, although many of them could probably stand alone if they needed to.

However the “Durham Difference”, the colleges, provides a similar range of societies and allows participation for people of all levels of ability. On the sports field, college competitions in everything from Ultimate Frisbee to Football to Pool mean that Durham has one of the highest sports participation rates of all British Universities. Societies at the college level are incredibly easy to set up – it just took a list of signatures and turning up to a JCR meeting with enough support for a friend of mine to set up a climbing club. It’s easy, suitable for all abilities and means that thousands of people can get involved in whatever they want.

Friends and socialising are one of the most important aspects of university life. The college system appears purpose-built for this, and as part of the nightlife, the DSU yet again falls short.

The DSU’s social calendar pales in comparison to the college scene. The Freshers’ Ball and Bop are often cited as poor alternatives to college nights while Saturday Night Revolver suffered from low attendance. In fact, most night outs don’t start at Kingsgate bar but in various college bars, moving on to the usual night spots of Studio, Klute et al. As a central entertainment venue, the DSU appears relatively pointless.

And if you were to analyse the friends of Durham students, you would most likely see that friendship groups centre upon college links. In a thoroughly un-scientific survey of people I know, this appears to be true for the vast majority. When we aren’t all living together in college, most people live in largely college-based groups. The micro-community means making friends is a lot easier, and college societies, activities and sport provide a myriad of places to meet people.

The University prides itself on offering a well-rounded education for its students centred around the “Durham Difference”. The college system means that your interests can be pursued at any level of experience, you feel part of a smaller community within the wider university and excellent personal support can be offered if you need it. Other universities need a sprawling union because they don’t have these advantages. In Durham’s case, a central union is almost obsolete.

Removing the concrete monstrosity that is the DSU building would certainly change the physical landscape of Durham. But, for most, the best bits of Durham life, the relationships and experiences which truly shape our time here, stem from the college system.



The strength of the collegiate system lies in Colleges, JCRs, MCRs and DSU working together to promote the best outcome for all students. Without a strong partnership the united front of the student body breaks down. We need a federal union over the common rooms to deal with ‘The University’ and this is the main purpose of DSU.

In non-collegiate universities, policy is decided on the opinion of a vocal minority of politically minded people. However, here it is made on the basis of the information received from College execs (which are chosen on their own merit) Therefore, we act on the views of the majority as we have access almost instantly to the majority of student opinion. However, we need a strong union to do it.

Speaking as a Welshman, I understand the power of close vocal harmony. Having 16 different colleges creates the potential for major disagreement and this is why you need the DSU to try and unify this student voice.

DSU and the colleges are interdependent; neither can function effectively without the other and the student experience is enhanced because of this partnership. The loyalty that exists between individual students and their college is something many other unions could only wish for. 16 colleges working with a central representative body, the DSU, makes for a formidable partnership; informed individual colleges feeding into DSU and working collectively. This means that DSU is hypersensitive to the needs of Durham students.

Durham isn’t a single bubble of homogenous student life, but is a series of 16 small bubbles. This is fine, to an extent, but obviously this structure does not constitute the perfect hub for representation to the University,

The DSU promotes, defends and extends the rights of students by providing the expertise, resources and dedicated time to protect students.

DSU is important to you because we champion the real issues, such as societies funding, JCR/MCR grants, academic representation and welfare.

DSU is able to provide autonomy because we are independent from the University, whilst most college common rooms are in what is known as the DSO framework, rendering all staff employees of the university.  This autonomy empowers DSU to act in the best interests of students.

DSU provides central DUCK, Education, Welfare and Society officers, who are dedicated purely to their remit which feeds directly into and supports the colleges systems. DSU and Common Room Execs form a two way dynamic that benefits all parties.

Through acting in the best interests of our students at college level or collectively across the entire institution – we will achieve the best results.  The colleges have certainly managed to ameliorate each and every student’s university experience; but so, I believe, has DSU.

I am certain that the strong partnership between the colleges and DSU will continue to play a vital role in enhancing and vitalising the Durham University experience. The partnership between DSU and the common rooms give the collegiate system its power.  DSU gives students access to the resources they need to challenge university decisions; we act as the central body colleges need to facilitate discussion with the University.

By acting as the president, I unite the 16 colleges with DSU, so that the student body has a cohesive voice. A statement from the DSU, made on behalf of (and incorporating the view of) all 16 colleges is a powerful and resonant tool.

Looking to the future, Durham Students’ Union has the goal of becoming a world class students union. The reason DSU can attain this status is because it has 16 JCR’s, 16 MCR’s and16 college Execs giving instant access to the opinion of 16,000 students. With this many voices feeding into DSU,  we have the best representation in the country. The power of a unified, strong and effective student voice will be transformational to the Durham Student Experience.  This new partnership with colleges will enable the University and its students, to make great strides towards becoming a world class students’ union.

Reflecting on last year, there are obvious further benefits of partnerships between colleges and DSU. Last year DSU’s Nightbus safely transported over 10,000 students around the city our advice centre assisted 2,913 students through difficult issues, and we accredited 532 properties under the ‘code of standards for landlords’.

Similarly, DSU supported 193 student-led societies, providing funding and offering transformational experiences. One of our 193 university societies is Palatinate for example, a loss making society that the student body clearly wants. Without the DSU Palatinate as it is in this form would not be possible.

DUCK, once again is an incredible success, raising over £827,000 for 119 charities by offering students incredible extra-curricular opportunities.

All of these outstanding activities are supported by DSU and are led by students; these activities enhance employability and change lives.  Whilst I’m proud of the achievements of DSU, we can go further.  This will be best achieved by continuing to work with common rooms on a more intensive and engaging level.

In actuality, DSU makes the collegiate system immeasurably stronger. Unlike other universities, DSU allows the details of student life to be dictated by students who can have the highest level of engagement with them.

We are able to focus on issues that matter to the student body at University level. A united front, strong representative and welfare systems as well as experienced staff support, are the Union’s unique selling points because of the collegiate system,

DSU is free to fight the issues that are important to you as a student body. The collegiate system is our backbone which is in turn informed by student opinion. That is where the strength of the Union lies.

One thought on “Debate: DSU is an irrelevant institution

  • I don’t agree that it’s irrelevant. Of course we have colleges, but we don’t only have friends in our own colleges. It’s easy to have a central place where someone from hild and bede and someone from josephine butler, for example, can get together and socialise. Kingsgate bar was the place I spent most of my free evenings with friends. I agree that the central governing body is perhaps irrelevant, but in terms of our social lives, it’s very important.


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