By Hanna Suliman-Nicol
In 2016, Durham University unveiled its ten-year programme of expansion and growth entitled the Estate Masterplan. Aiming to keep Durham at the forefront of global higher education, the plan outlined an increase of, at most, 4,000 students by 2027, as well as the construction and renovation of various sites around the city.
It was initially hailed as an ambitious proposal that would help to develop Durham’s reputation as a world-class institution. But two years down the line, serious concerns are being raised about the project’s sustainability. It is already becoming clear that the rate of the University’s growth is neither in line with that of the city’s, nor does it match the current capacities of the existing colleges.
The defining characteristic of the collegiate system is unquestionably the sense of community it fosters. By forcing colleges to increase their student numbers, the University is placing a huge burden on them – both in terms of finance and practicality – to source new accommodation whilst maintaining their collegiate atmosphere. Given Durham’s density, it is impossible for colleges to build ‘on site’, and so accommodation is being pushed further and further afield.
Serious concerns are being raised about the sustainability of expansion
At University College, a new building is being developed on Claypath to cater for 100 new freshers joining in the 2018-2019 academic year. These new students will be so isolated from college that the option of self catering, rather than having them dine with the rest of their year in Castle, is currently being discussed. Another consequence of the increased student intake is that the College Office has had to significantly decrease the number of rooms available to third years and finalists.
While such changes may not seem drastic to an outsider, it is small tweaks like these that slowly erode the sense of community and remove what it means to be a collegiate university. Living out or further away discourages people from being active members of their college. If students are dissociated from their colleges, what differentiates us from any other university, and where is the value in having this system at all?
Even worse, the University’s expansion plan could seriously harm Durham City itself. Durham is already besieged with students, who account for approximately 75% of the city centre’s population. It is a small town which lacks the infrastructure to deal with a growing population. Cafés, restaurants and entertainment venues, are struggling to meet the needs of the student body.
If it is not yet too early to learn lessons from the tragedy earlier this month, it is clear that dangerously large crowds both inside and outside of clubs must be tackled. Integrating the Stockton colleges, while also expanding the general student population, will only exacerbate this issue.
The city is struggling to accommodate for the increase in population
Property in Durham is also becoming more expensive as the city tries to cope with the massive demand for central locations. This is not only an issue for students looking for affordable accommodation, but local people and businesses who will soon find themselves priced out of their own city. Even major multinational retailer M&S is closing its Durham branch in April, perhaps because it is unable to justify staying open when the cost of operating in the city centre is so high.
Although the University argues that increasing the student body will offer more customers, the reality is that students leave for months on end over the holidays, and the local population does not compensate for their absence. The prospect of losing most of your customer base is simply unviable for local businesses.
The University’s website describes its plans with platitudes like “organic growth”, but there is nothing natural in the way that the institution is being forced to expand. We will witness further issues when the Bill Bryson Library, already stretched to its limit, tries to accommodate the influx of students in the coming exam periods.
Reinvestment into services and facilities is necessary for Durham to develop its reputation and ability to offer world-class education. But this goal should not encompass expanding the student body beyond reasonable bounds. Moving forward, the University must balance its plans for rapid expansion with the reality that Durham is just not big enough.
Photograph: Zoë Boothby