Durham offers “very good value for money,” Vice-Chancellor tells Palatinate

By and

Since Professor Stuart Corbridge took office as Vice-Chancellor and Warden in September 2015, Durham University has been in a state of transition and transformation.

With a new University Strategy set to be delivered to University Council on 13th  December, of which the relocation of Queen’s Campus to Durham City forms a part, Palatinate sat down with Professor Corbridge a year on from his appointment to ask him about some of the changes and challenges faced by the University.

Professor Corbridge reflected positively on his first year at Durham, stressing the uniqueness of the collegiate system and his desire to ensure the University continues to create a “truly distinctive Durham experience” for its students.

The Vice-Chancellor said his overarching vision for Durham “hasn’t changed all that much. I think we would expect any Russell Group University to have world-class education and world-class research, and I think I was hardly the first person to come to Durham and say that we should have a world class student experience,” Corbridge said.

“Although we’ve prioritised the wider student experience more than previously, I don’t think that would take many people by surprise. I think where the vision has changed is that you then have to operationalise [world-class education and research]. Through the course of the year, we had to then think, ‘Can we offer world-class research, world-class student experience, world-class education both in Durham City and at Queen’s Campus?’”

Alluding to Queen’s Campus, which is set to be repurposed as an international foundation college, Corbridge admitted that the University’s vision has also changed “in the sense that it became more focused in terms of our students in Durham, thinking more about the internationalisation of the University.

“Clearly that was an evolution from where we were even ten months ago. We’re a long way involved in operationalising the vision. The plan is to take the full University Strategy to Council on 13 December—that’s fifteen months’ work,” he said.

“What’s been a great joy about it is that it’s been a very collective effort; a large number of people have been involved in putting the Strategy together. So the vision is just the starting point, I think.”

Corbridge said that “trying to roadtest the [University’s] vision as best as we can through town hall meetings, the website, and with the alumni is more difficult. It comes with a very big price tag and it is up to Council then to say what they want to do given the political uncertainty in the UK.”

While Corbridge spoke positively about this vision, many local residents have voiced concerns about the growth of the University—particularly in Durham City.

Responding to questions raised by Douglas Pocock, the Chair of the City of Durham Trust, asking whether the city should adjust to the University or the University should adjust to the city, Corbridge said that “the first thing I think we should say is that we need to work together on a plan for the city that works not just for the University, but for the people of the city and the county.

[blockquote author=”Professor Stuart Corbridge” pull=”normal”]One of the criticisms of the University, I think, has been that the University tends to act before it has entered into dialogue.[/blockquote]


“One of the criticisms of the University, I think, has been that the University tends to act before it has entered into dialogue,” Corbridge said. “So what we’ve done as part of the University Strategy is to be absolutely upfront that our ambition is to grow the University over ten years by no more than—so could be less than—4,000 students. I don’t think the University has ever said that to the local community before.

“We’ve grown substantially over the last ten years, but it’s been incremental, and I think that has caused some concern in the community.”

Professor Corbridge referred to the new Estates Masterplan, which was launched at the beginning of the academic year for public consultation. As part of the Estates Masterplan, the University intends to build two new colleges on the site of Mount Oswald to accommodate students migrating from Stockton.

Additionally, the University intends to open Sheraton Park, a new purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) building in Neville’s Cross, as a college for postgraduate students. Sheraton Park will eventually replace Ustinov College.

Referring to public consultation on the details of the Estates Masterplan, the Vice-Chancellor noted that the University held consultation events at Maiden Castle and at the Marriott hotel, but he says the University knows it “will have to do more—not everybody is able to get to those two meetings.”

He also said that he talks regularly to residents’ associations across Durham, Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, and to Durham County council.


“So we’ve said first of all this is the table of growth we imagine; this is how we imagine it will take shape in terms of the academic estate and the colleges; and then I think what we’ve tried to say is that we will do our very best to house more of our students in Durham University accommodation.

“We have been very open that we are planning four new colleges over [a ten-year] period. We have been very open to say that the first two [colleges] will be at Mount Oswald, so that should cause less disruption in town.

[blockquote author=”Professor Stuart Corbridge” pull=”normal”]We will do our best to work with the community on things like the routing of students through the city, making sure people are involved and consulted on the design of new buildings.[/blockquote]

“We will do our best to work with the community on things like the routing of students through the city, making sure people are involved and consulted on the design of new buildings,” Corbridge stressed.

“And the last part of an answer to Mr Pocock, or anybody else I suspect, is that the University does also contribute a massive amount to the UK,” Corbridge said, citing a recent report by BiGGAR Economics that Durham is worth £1.1 billion per year to the UK economy.

Corbridge also claimed that the University is worth around £640 million to the North East, and over £400 million to Durham.

“Our students are volunteering, as you probably know, about 14,000 hours of [their time] a year—our staff too. So whilst, inevitably, there will be some tensions, I think we have to tell a story too about what the University contributes.

“I think it’s a mixture of what the University contributes, being transparent in what we intend to do, and then genuinely getting
feedback and seeing what happens. We have to operate in a legal planning regime, so we can propose but we can’t take all of the decisions ourselves,” Corbridge said.

With the cost of a single room in college increasing by 1.6% to £7,171 for the 2017/18 academic year, the affordability of living in college was a theme that emerged in many questions submitted by Palatinate readers. Palatinate asked the Vice-Chancellor at what point does college accommodation become too expensive.

Professor Corbridge expressed that the University’s vision is to increase the number of students living in college: “At the moment, 43% of students we think live in colleges at any moment; we would like that figure in ten years time to be over 50%.

“We’re committed to students having a collegiate experience. We will only get 50% or more students living in college if it’s an attractive offer relative to what else they can access here, in Stockton or the surrounding villages.”

Referring to the 1.6% increase in accommodation fees, relative to a 3.5% increase last year and 20% rise in the three years preceding 2016/17, Corbridge stressed “we know that DSU would prefer zero, but I think that 1.6% will prove to be a pretty good deal—it’s much different to what’s happened over the last three years.

“My own guess is that inflation will be above 2% in the UK, so that’s a reasonable rate rise given that our staff costs are going up greater than that,” Corbridge said.

[blockquote author=”Professor Stuart Corbridge” pull=”normal”]We know that DSU would prefer zero, but I think that 1.6% will prove to be a pretty good deal—it’s much different to what’s happened over the last three years.[/blockquote]

Considering the future cost of college accommodation, the Vice-Chancellor emphasised that “going forward, the issues will be whether we can maintain that sort of low level of rent rise over time and what sort of debate will we have with the student body over some degree of differential accommodation.

“That’s the other issue of concern for some students as I hear it, that you can pay the same price for a room that is really nice and for a room which really has problems, so we will need to have a discussion on that.”

However, he was keen to assert the importance of not creating exclusions within college accommodation. “What we really want toVC Cathedral avoid…is that you price certain parts of the accommodation so high that only a certain group of students can access it, and that is a problem at some UK universities as we know it.”

In seeking to address concerns of the impact of rising accommodation and tuition fees, as well as cuts in the Durham Grant Scheme, on the accessibility of the University for students from lower-income backgrounds, Corbridge raised that as part of the new University Strategy a review has been commissioned on improving accessibility.

“We’ve just asked for what’s the most radical thing, what’s the least radical thing we can do,” he said.

The Vice-Chancellor noted that building relations in the North East is increasingly part of the University Strategy. “I think we’ve decided as an Executive, and talking to students, staff, is that we probably want to make a big push in the North East.

“One of the difficulties with Durham is that we are a top-ranked global university, and sometimes people might think we’re slightly detached from the region, and I think we need to work hard to show that we’re not.”

In expanding upon the relationships the University already have in place with the local area, Corbridge understood that the University has more to do with local schools.

”We’re doing things now in Bishop Auckland; we’ll remain in Stockton; we’re here, contributing a lot in terms of gross value added, but I think we can do more with local schools to get people from low-income backgrounds into university,” said Corbridge.

He added that Alan Houston, the incoming Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), has a lot of experience in this area.

“What we will do when Alan joins us is look at the balance of how we spend that money, to what extent we spend it on things like the summer schools, the Sutton Trust scheme, or on bursaries.

“We will involve students in a review of that to see whether we’re doing as well as we could do.”

The Vice-Chancellor raised the possibility of introducing the living wage, insisting that the University were “working on it.” He added that the University is “committed to trying to be a responsible employer, a living wage employer.”

A front-page story in the Guardian the day before Palatinate’s conversation with Professor Corbridge revealed that Durham sits eighth in a table that ranks the percentage of staff at Russell Group universities employed on “temporary” or “atypical” contracts.

Corbridge said that he hadn’t “had a chance to look at the Guardian article in any detail,” but did allude to a University project on how staff are employed.

“We are doing a large piece of work on how many people we employ, how we employ them and the terms and conditions.

“We have about 3,500 people FTE [full-time employees] on the payroll, but as you say there are far more bodies going through the payroll, so we do at the moment have a large number of atypical contracts but some of those of course are students—working in the bar, working in the library.”

According to the Guardian article, 60.5% of staff employed by the University are on “temporary” or “atypical” contracts. Comparatively, the figure for staff employed on similar contracts by Cambridge University was only 13.4%.

Within the piece of work, led by Jen Robinson, Chief Operating Officer, Corbridge stressed that the University will “look at the Guardian article to see why we appear, as you tell me, different from Oxford and Cambridge, as they would be reasonable comparisons you would think because they are collegiate universities.”

Following the University’s fall from 70th in 2015/16 to 96th in the latest Times Higher Education (THE) university rankings, the Vice-Chancellor made his case for the University’s success, but also recognised that more needs to be done to internationalise the reputation of the University.

“If you are talking about the international league tables, we’ve had our second best performance ever in terms of QS, dropped a little in THE. We’re in the top one hundred world Universities,” he said.

Professor Corbridge recognised that the University is facing increased competition from universities around the world.

“You have to understand that there is enormous competition on the one hand; there is the rise of universities in Asia and elsewhere—so our recent drop in THE was mirrored by places like Exeter.

“In the THE league table, one of the issues for places like Durham going forward is that a lot of the mark is based on reputational surveys, not teaching and research.”

As a result Corbridge asserted the importance of improving the reputation of the University abroad. “What this tells me and what I think it should tell us is that Durham is incredibly well known, regarded, and loved in this country; we know because we’ve done some work ourselves in Europe, less so in the United States I believe. We don’t have the name recognition that we should outside this country.

“We have a lot of work to do in terms of internationalising the reputation of the University, when you look at what I would call hard metrics—employability, student citations—then we do very well, which is partially why we do better in the QS league tables.”

With the University’s fall in and tuition fees expected to rise to £9,500, Corbridge was asked by one reader how Durham can ensure that it remains a competitive choice for prospective students.

The Vice-Chancellor commented: “In my view, we do offer very good value for money. You would expect me to say that, but for that fee. the quality of the education is very high.”

[blockquote author=”Professor Stuart Corbridge” pull=”normal”]In my view, we do offer very good value for money. You would expect me to say that, but for that fee, the quality of the education is very high.[/blockquote]

Corbridge added that, “more generally it’s a collegiate University, so I think we’re offering something through the college system, through Durham Students’ Union (most universities will have something like that), through Experience Durham, which adds extra value.”

Referring to future plans to develop the student experience, Professor Corbridge spoke enthusiastically of plans to expand the Durham Award—an award developed in partnership with employers and students to recognise the extra skills that Durham gives to students.

Currently around one hundred students participate in the Durham Award. However, Corbridge proposed that “we could scale that up so that on a voluntary basis; thousands of students would be interested in taking it, and we offer students something really useful for it.

“We can’t force people to [take the Award]. Well we could, but I don’t think we intend to force students to do the Durham Award, but if we offer something really good that they would value, that employers would value, that’s going to cost a bit of money, then we would show we’re offering good value for money to students.”

Responding to questions about the uncertainty of Brexit, Corbridge stressed the importance of consultation. “We’ve got a town hall for European students and international students next week and we’ve done two town halls with staff members. I can tell you what I would hope for: we want to go from 21% international students now to 29% in ten years time.

“By then of course EU students, as we understand it, will be classified as international, so they need to be added onto that figure. My firm hope is that the Government recognise that all universities, particularly top universities, need to attract students and staff from all over the world, so we’re campaigning hard to ensure that the new regime doesn’t close to well qualified students and staff,” Corbridge said.

“We’re working with local MPs on that, the University UK lobbies on that, the Russell Group lobbies on that. What will happen we don’t know; we will have to hope the government retains reasonably open borders, particularly for students. It would be better to take the students out of the migration totals, for which there is a lot of public support. I don’t think the public generally thinks students are permanent migrants.”

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