Amongst the plethora of projects proposed in Durham University’s ten-year strategy, announced in 2017, was the “Estate Masterplan”. The plan lays out several goals, notably including the development of “four to six new colleges” and a pledge to have over half of students living in college accommodation by 2027.
However, the financial squeeze of the pandemic has meant that the University is “needing to review” its strategy and the “existing plans and timescales for developments and refurbishments.”
Two new offices were pencilled in to open in London and New York in 2021 to enable “better engagement with partners, alumni and potential funders”, but only the London opening has materialised.
The new Elvet Riverside home for the Business School — meant to have been completed in 2021 to help it “break into the top 20 in Europe” according to the University’s roadmap to 2027 — is still awaiting planning permission.
Elvet Riverside was also due to see the redevelopment of its Arts and Humanities facilities this year. No such developments are at present listed under the University’s current projects.
As for the new colleges, only one of at least four has been completed — South. Despite identifying the Leazes Road site (currently home to both the College of St Hild and St Bede and the School of Education) as an area of developmental potential, no concrete plans have been announced for the construction of colleges either there or elsewhere.
The University do, however, “anticipate that the current users of the Leazes Road site will begin to vacate their buildings in Summer 2022.”
It is stated in their 2021 Annual Report that “The initial plans will be reassessed […] to align with changing priorities in response to the impact of the pandemic.” They have also recently acquired Boldon House, a site in Pity Me.
The University aims to have over 50% of its student cohort living in college accommodation by 2027. If the provision of accommodation does not keep pace with the proposed growth in the student population over the same period — 21,500 by 2027 — the University will be unable to deliver on this aim.
In the 2020/21 academic year student numbers had already reached 20,268, an increase of over 2,000 on the 2016/17 figure.
Furthermore, information uncovered by a Palatinate Freedom of Information Request shows that the proportion of students living in college accommodation has been on a downwards trend since the 2016/17 academic year.
In the case of undergraduates, the percentage of those living in college accommodation has fallen from 43% in 2016/17 to 35% in 2020/21.
The percentage of postgraduate students living in accommodation provided by their college has fallen from 39% to 20% over the same period.
This comes amidst soaring student rental prices and local concerns over Durham becoming “saturated” by an ever-growing student population.
Palatinate spoke to local stakeholders about their views on the delayed expansion.
Gilesgate Residents Association said: “Residents deeply regret the current failure of the university to achieve the aim of 50% of students living in college. To ensure a balanced community, it is estimated that no more than 30% of students should live out.
“Students are not having the full opportunity of being a part of a community because in many areas, there really is no community left for them to belong to and enjoy.”
The City of Durham Trust raised concern about “unsuitable and unnecessary schemes for new PBSAs” such as plans to replace the Apollo Bingo Hall in Gilesgate created “on the basis of utterly spurious projections of recent trends and assertions about ‘need’”.
“The local community don’t want it, nor do the local Councillors or the MP […] It will not help meet the 50% living-in aspiration, so it will be surplus to need.”
The Secretary of St Nicholas Community Forum raised concern about Durham continuing to meet their student number targets, while failing to meet their college accommodation goals.
“Thirty years ago, most of the houses in the city had families living in them. Now residents and Durham students live among neglected neighbourhoods owned by absent landlords.
“The constant expansion of the university has led to the emptying out of the established healthy balanced communities we once had not that long ago. “It is high time that the University took meaningful responsibility for the impact of its continued growth, by providing affordable and attractive accommodation on its own estate, and at a minimum, meeting the targets it aspires to.”
In response. a Durham University spokesperson said, “The University Strategy, 2017-2027, was approved by University Council in 2016. “As with all strategies, it is continually reviewed, updated and refreshed. Plans inevitably evolve due to an ever-changing external environment and our response to it.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many, if not all, major organisations to re-assess their priorities, operations and forward planning. Recent years have also seen significant changes to building constraints and major increases in construction costs.
“As a result we will be reviewing a number of proposed new capital projects. However, we remain committed to the overarching objective of the University Strategy: to enhance the standing of Durham as a world- leading university and to promote our engagement with the city and the community.
“Our overall student number target of a maximum of 21,500 is unchanged. Our student intake for 2020 and 2021 was higher than anticipated due to unexpected shifts in the grading of A-levels and other Level 3 qualifications. We were transparent about this throughout and have worked with staff, students and external partners to ensure the best possible experience for our students, and balanced and thriving communities in Durham City.
“We are monitoring our undergraduate intake for 2022/23 very carefully, in what we expect will be a more settled environment, and anticipate our student population returning to a maximum of 21,500 over time, as the larger intakes of 2020 and 2021 progress to graduation.
“We have an ongoing aspiration to provide University- accommodation to a higher percentage of our students.”
Image: Mark Norton