Durham rewind: The biggest stories of the past year

By Madeleine Cater

Comment compiles the top 3 ‘need to know’ debates Palatinate covered last year that any Fresher, (or even returner) really should brush up on.

Lecturers’ strikes brought teaching to a halt 

Probably the biggest event to rock Durham University (and the University sector more generally) over the 2017/18 academic year was the UCU industrial strike action.

Some students joined the picket lines in solidarity with their lecturers.

Academics were on strike for a month during Durham’s dreaded ‘summative season’ (a term that if you don’t know now, you will do soon…) over proposed changes to their pensions which could have led to individual losses of £10,000 a year in retirement income. At Durham, 88% of UCU members voted for strike action and as such our university was one of over 60 institutions that were involved.

Some students joined the picket lines in solidarity with their lecturers, whilst others battled through the leaflets and placards to make it to their lectures. The strikes divided students with the cost of the lost lectures being a prime focus of discussion. With annual fees of £9000 many felt that students deserved financial compensation for the hours of learning lost, especially as the strikes were caused by factors totally outside of Durham student control.

Many felt the students deserved compensation for the hours of learning lost.

While great for our Comment section the strikes were not so great for degrees, with many finalists being unable to contact their dissertation supervisors only days before their work was due to be handed in. Weeks of missed content resulted in some exams having to be rewritten, as many papers would have become impossible to answer with the lack of teaching provided. These rushed amendments could even have been the cause of further confusion during the exam period; some Engineering papers became literally unanswerable as changes were made mid-exam.

The strikes were eventually suspended in April, to everyone’s relief, when the UCU voted to accept proposals put forward to solve the pension dispute. Yet with both sides having to significantly compromise to reach this deal, many wonder if this will be the last we hear of industrial strike action…

Socials under scrutiny

Societies are unquestionably an important part of college and university life in Durham, and with societies inevitably come socials. This year has seen the behaviour during these socials called into question with teams from Castle and Trevs being banned as a result of their actions.

During the Castle football initiations last year, incidences of public nudity and inappropriate behaviour led to all three teams being banned for the academic year. Occurring early in the first term, Castle’s ban served as a warning to other clubs that behaviour on socials would be under scrutiny.

It is likely that socials will continue to come under fire

This scrutiny was amplified after the proposed Trevs rugby social which entirely overshadowed the Castle initiation even making national news. The club was suspended indefinitely in November after it transpired they were planning to hold a 1980s miners’ strike- themed social. For a university in the North-East of England with a strong mining heritage and history, this idea was, quite rightly, wholly condemned by both the University, surrounding residents and many students.

It is through socials like this that the ‘town vs. gown divide will only ever increase.

There is often discussion about the ‘town vs. gown’ debate and it is through socials like this that this divide will only ever increase. My experiences of being on socials have been entirely positive, and most pass uneventfully, but with events like those of last year it is likely that socials will continue to come under fire. With impending initiations and ‘welcome drinks’ it is so important to remember that us students are only a small part of Durham, and within our own community there are many that can feel intimated by what may happen on a social. My advice would be to have fun, do only what makes you feel comfortable, but remember you are not invincible!

Expansion Plans

Durham is growing.

Since the unveiling of the University’s ten-year Estate Masterplan between 2017- 2027, building sites have begun to pop up everywhere. Over the summer, construction began on an £80 million project to develop a brand-new college and student facilities, as well as relocate John Snow College. This follows on from the redevelopment of our sports facilities at Maiden Castle and the building work taking place on the Lower Mountjoy site opposite the Science Site. In addition, Palatinate reported in September that building work has been approved for a new £40 million Mathematical and Computer Science building – I’ll pause a moment to catch my breath!

What can be forgotten is how small the city of Durham actually is

In the Estate Masterplan, Vice- Chancellor Professor Stuart Corbridge explains that the purpose of all this development is to ensure Durham continues to deliver and improve upon its ‘world-leading and world- changing research’ and offer ‘a student experience to rival the best in the world’. As such, the development and refurbishment of our facilities is definitely a priority, and with the growth and improvements of its structures comes a greater number of students attracted to Durham.

The enlargement of the student body is where a lot of argument against the expansion lies, especially as the University has said it wishes to increase student population to 21,500 by 2027.

What can be forgotten is how small the city of Durham is. While the University’s estate can develop around it, the historic city centre cannot be expanded, and it the increased pressure on this centre and its services that has raised concerns amongst residents and students. Worries over crowded nightclubs, overstretched local services and increasing social tensions between locals and students mean these expansion plans are a popular debate in our section.

For those just starting their first year at Durham, this topic is not one which is likely to go away. By the end of your three- or four-year degrees, the ‘Estates Masterplan’ will only be roughly halfway through its ten- year projection. The landscape of the university is changing. It will be exciting to see what new developments are proposed and, from an editorial perspective, what debates those developments will provoke.

 

Illustration: Katie Butler

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