Donation will have a ‘transformative impact’
By Bethany Henderson
The announcement of the Durham Inspired – North East Scholarships Programme which will support students coming from low-income backgrounds from the North East is, quite frankly, a breath of fresh air. The £7.5m donation by Charles Wilson and partner Dr Rowena Olegario – £1m of which will go towards the scholarships, supported by an additional £1m from matching donations – has without a doubt opened up an exciting opportunity for economically-disadvantaged students across the region.
The launch of this scheme will have a transformative impact on generations of students coming from low-income households who, through fate rather than fault, would not have been able to make the most of the developmental experiences that Durham has to offer.
Born and raised in County Durham myself, I have often been saddened by the financial situation and economic deprivation that leaves countless gifted, exceptional and talented young people without the means to attend university and advance their education.
Too often are underrepresented groups overlooked and unaccounted for by institutions of education due to their financial and personal circumstances. We are all acutely aware of how North East students are a minority within the University and we already know that Durham needs to be more accessible and inclusive to such minorities. Therefore, it is vital that the University have taken another major step towards aiding the support and success of underrepresented individuals with the establishment of this scholarship programme.
From my own experience as the recipient of the Robert Young Scholarship, I have witnessed first-hand how essential these scholarships are for allowing students from the North East region to realise their merit and potential. Before my scholarship, despite my academic abilities, I could not visualise myself coming to a university as respected and impressive as Durham.
I doubted myself too much because of cultural insecurities and yet my scholarship has allowed me to embrace university life to the fullest, both academically and socially, over the course of three years. I honestly believe that external (financial or personal) circumstances which are out of one’s control should not govern whether one is able to access and further their education; and indeed, financial circumstances are recognised as limiting people from the North East gaining access to academia.
More than anything, this new scheme will demonstrate to underprivileged but ambitious prospective students wishing to apply to Durham that the institution is and will be invested in their future success. The Durham Inspired – North East Scholarship scheme will therefore enable people from the North East to perceive Durham as a viable option for themselves, both financially and academically – something that the Robert Young scholarship allowed me to see in myself. It is a privilege to see Durham taken another measure towards continuing to fund and aid people from underrepresented backgrounds access Durham University, and it is something we need to continue to strive for.
Durham needs an ‘idiosyncratic Geordie identity’
The recent generous donation to Durham University is certainly to be praised, as it meets the poignant cry for financial assistance the North East had beckoned for many years. For Wilson, the acting chief executive of the Tesco-owned Booker food wholesale group, to have his esteemed eye cast its gaze to the student locale of the Durham area is a seed thrown to the fertile ground of the academic potential of students here in the North East.
Stephen Gogard, from Durham’s own School of Education, has found in his research that through comparing similar students from the North East with those in the rest of the country, students here do not perform any worse. Yet, the Independent has released that students from the North East are 6 times less likely to start a medicine or dentistry degree than students in London.
Yet from a narrower, selfish, point of view, I want to assess this omission of local students from our university as an omission of the local culture, and thus a repletion of my own experience of the North East. I am fully aware that the homogenous label I often find myself tossing to natives of this town – ‘locals’ – can be loaded with classist prejudice that divides private school students here from the people that live here. I personally long to hear a Geordie accent pitched in a tutorial far more often than it is now. Yet, this is a self-interested pondering on the real lack of opportunity students here face.
The question of whether university’s identities should include their local culture personalizes and enriches all students’ university experience that hopefully this donation will help make apparent. The 20 students per year that this donation will assist is certainly a start in giving Durham university an idiosyncratic Geordie identity to add to its globally representative student populous but most importantly it will hopefully give local individuals a real chance to break into academia more fervently than previous generations.
The current global discourse of equality should be as apparent in access to higher education as in any other field. I hope that this donation will rightly allow the financially disadvantaged youth of County Durham and surrounding areas the financial impetus to emerge on similar national platforms through this institution.
Photograph: Business Durham via flickr