Editorial: summer of discontent

By and

No-one pretended that the Department of Education’s job was an easy one. Grade inflation or giving out poor grades was the dilemma they professed,
as if there were no conceivable alternatives.

However, even if few can agree as to how the Department should have solved the problem, many may conclude that they made an art form of incompetence.

Fast forward a few months and Gavin Williamson is gone, which probably feels like justice to the generation of students who suffered under his protracted tenure. We wish him and his pet tarantula, Cronus, well on the backbenchers. We needn’t feel too bad for him, however, as reports say he’s in line for a knighthood — a serious case of grade inflation.

If they were interested in their credibility, the Department should have admitted how damaging grade inflation has been for students and the universities admitting them. It was an inadequate solution to a difficult predicament.

Durham, like others, has scrambled to provide for the record levels of students meeting entry requirements. Last year’s £1,500 accommodation discount offer increased to a £5,000 grant for students who chose to defer this year.

Like the Government, the University seems to find money down the back of the sofa when in crisis. (None of the same flexibility is offered to staff considering strikes over plummeting pensions.)

Private student halls then held the cards, and the University was forced to negotiate a number of deals to ensure all students had
a place to stay.

Some students found themselves with 24 hours to decide whether to take a gap year.

This was clearly the least bad solution, but a far from happy outcome. Students could feel distanced from their college communities, some over half an hour’s walk from the hubs of student life. Yet the price will be the same.

The University insist that, whatever choices students make, “they can look forward to a world-class academic and wider student experience.” This is probably true. The application process exaggerates the differences between colleges, and many students never live in college, yet become as well integrated as the toastie bars and raucous chants.

Additionally, most students, parents and commentators have sympathy with the University’s predicament. The issue, however, as the cartoon above brings out, is the chasm between expectation and reality.

Incoming students’ trust has been shaken by promises from the University that could not be met. They should rebuild this trust by offering meaningful compensation to all students forced to live outside of their colleges.

Durham’s accommodation fees are already amongst the highest in the country, and given that a reasonably small proportion of freshers are affected, such compensation would not burn a hole in University finances.

They should admit that these emergency measures, necessary though they were, mean that not all students will have equal access to the collegiate system, one of the University’s unique selling points.

The University should also apologise for mishandling communication. Some students found themselves with 24 hours to decide whether to take a gap year or to move college.

A number of parents wrote to Palatinate describing their heartbreak at watching their children go through this ordeal. It did not need to be so. The University say they are dealing with an “unprecedented” situation. After a year and a half, this line is wearing thin.

Students are often derided for their willingness to complain about anything and everything. The pandemic has shown if anything our remarkable resilience. But the case for providing compensation to freshers cut adrift from their colleges is clear. Their complaints should be heard and addressed.

We would like to extend our sincere thanks to Freeman’s Quay, Lifestyle Fitness, for sponsoring this edition of Palatinate.

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