By Jamie Penston Raja
Monday, 16th of November saw the continuation of the campaign for a freeze in college accommodation fees, beginning with the protest in February this year, and the later protests at the pre-application Open Days. With support from a range of student bodies (Durham Students for University Reform, Trevelyan College Left Society, Durham Young Greens and the Durham University Labour Club), the protest, organised by Trevelyan College Left Society, involved a total of approximately 150 students, showing that this issue is not going away.
The protest was against the fact that over the last three years college accommodation prices have risen by over 20%. Over that time, there has been no increase in Government maintenance loans and grants, and there has instead been a reduction in the Durham Grant from £3,000 two years ago, to £2,000 for this coming year. How this is consistent with the Vice Chancellor’s pledges at the open meeting held on 10th November, to maintain the collegiate system and increase diversity within the University remains to be seen. An increase in rent, the major cost for a student at Durham University, coupled with a decrease in the amount available for those with less money leads to nothing but a two-tiered education system.
Therefore, the calls for a two-year freeze on college accommodation fees, and greater consultation with the student body on further changes in rent are central to the demands of this protest.
The protest itself was well attended and optimistic in spirit. Millie Tanner, the President of the Durham Students Union, opened the protest with a speech on the work the Students’ Union is doing to further this cause, showing that there is wide support for this movement. There was also representation from members of the Unite Community trade union, which have been supporting this action from the offset, and messages of solidarity from the UCL Cut the Rent campaign, who have been fighting their own battle against unfair accommodation prices. With chants from the tame “Freeze our fees” to the more colourful “We’re f***ing freezing, so why aren’t our fees”, the protest caught the eye of many passers-by outside of Bill Bryson Library, before moving to the Palatine Centre, where the main speeches were heard.
Under the watchful eyes of security and staff in the Palatine Centre, speeches were heard on the more obvious issues with the rent increases: the detrimental effect on diversity within the student body, and the inadequacy of student loans and the Durham Grant to cover this. Speeches were also heard highlighting the wider effects of these increases, and their place within the local and national picture. For instance, the impact of the extortionate rents on the local community, as well as students, in terms of pricing local people out of the area. Questions were asked about whether a world-class university such as Durham should be investing in corporations including, but not limited to, the Daily Mail, BP, and Lockhead Martin. Finally, the issue of the Government’s Green Paper on education was highlighted as well, along with the threat that this blatant marketisation brings to public education as a whole, and how the rent increases are a direct result of this long-term policy.
In response to the protest, the University outlined its commitment to “freedom of expression within the law… as this reflects some of our core values as a university. With university pricing for student accommodation we strive to offer good value to our students. At Durham University, students have a college experience at halls of residence pricing.” Unfortunately this will be very reminiscent of the previous response to the February accommodation fees protest, with no real address to the issues at hand, and little acknowledgement of the important issue that has been highlighted.
Whether this protest has had an effect or not, we will not know until the University Executive Committee announces its conclusions on the pricing of next year’s college rent. This protest has shown that the students of Durham aren’t going to let this issue go. Accommodation costs at this university are too high, and should not be made any higher. Students are all too often left out of decisions on how their rent can be best decided and on how that money should be later spent, and if the University is unwilling to act to fix this, it is likely that protests of this kind will carry on.
Photograph: Charlotte Wormington