I bagged a Durham disappointment

By Faye Saulsbury

University is not a business. It is a school, first and foremost – a place of education. It is also a community. The Latin universitas magistrorum, from which the word ‘university’ is derived, can roughly be translated as ‘community of teachers and scholars’. 

As a non-business, universities do not need to make a profit. They need, at minimum, to cover their costs. Of course, what exactly can be judged as a reasonable cost is up for debate. While the construction of the TLC, the upkeep of historic buildings, and the installation of more computers in the library is expensive, it can be deemed reasonable. The six figure salaries of senior management staff cannot. 

Vice Chancellor Stuart Corbidge is paid roughly £300,000 per annum, Palatinate reported earlier this year, and has work-related business class flights covered by the University. The article went on to state:

“Stuart Corbridge is surrounded by other senior managers with similar pay, office budgets and expenses. It is this ‘senior leadership team’ that imposes cutbacks and redundancies on our lowest-paid staff, though their own salaries are never subjected to efficiency savings.”

This same senior management team is now proposing major cutbacks to our education and our university community.

Education is about discussion, participation, interaction and compromise – those things which also build community

Teaching might consist mainly of lectures. Education does not. 

Education is about discussing ideas with other people, and holding your own in a debate. Education is about building your own model, not reading an article about someone else’s. Education is about getting your team to work together on a field trip. Education is about opening yourself up to criticism when you present in front of a class.

It is possible to deliver lectures via recordings and videos. It is possible to deliver access to academic journals online. But education is more than listening and reading. It is about discussion, participation, interaction and compromise – those things which also build community. 

The proposal of online-only degrees is financially-motivated, short-term thinking. Durham University’s development plans relied on an increase in international fees over the next 10 years. With this projection now under threat, senior management has sought other ways to increase the size of the student body. 

By moving all first year learning online, the student population physically in Durham can expand by a third at least. There will also be incoming students who choose an online-only degree. Thus, the student population in Durham can remain the same, while the overall number of students increases.

The proposal of online-only degrees is financially-motivated, short-term thinking

For those of us stuck part-way through our degrees, there is no option but to grit our teeth until we can grab our certificates of graduation and leave.

But what will be the value of that certificate? The learning aims of our courses may or may not have been met. With departments focusing on the switch to online learning, will undergraduate students caught awkwardly in the transition receive the attention we expected to get? The impact of two rounds of strikes, in an academic year cut short by outside circumstances, has not been mentioned. 

Durham University has never been able to claim credit for affordability, social inclusion or a great nightlife. What this university relies upon is its academic reputation. The proposal to change to online-only learning, shockingly rapidly and without consultation of students or staff, will damage that reputation greatly, possibly irreversibly. 

“I bagged a Durham degree!” boasts the tote bag handed out at graduation. I wonder, is it anything to boast about? 


6 thoughts on “I bagged a Durham disappointment

  • This is brilliant. The key is in your first sentence. Surely those who run the University—who surround Corbridge—do, however, think they are running a business. I expect they were recruited for their business-running skills. I am a recently-graduated mature student. 40 years of working in business taught (if that is the right word) me to seek a return—“value for money”—for any “investment”, and the £55,000+ I spent on my degree was money I could have spent on other things. So I was complicit in seeing it as a commercial transaction. The question is, how can this be changed? I’m afraid that I don’t have the answer. I hope you can find one.

  • I thought Durham University was a charity,and all profits went back into the Uni,could someone please set me straight on these thoughts.
    If that is the case and profits were made in the passed why have the Uni needed to borrow money to build Mount Oswald and other ventures in the City.
    They have either overstepped there budget and made bad business decisions,which looks to me that they have not done their jobs properly.
    Never mind the Uni in trouble will end up seeing these people off with a backhander and a pat on the back for doing a bad job and putting valued, experienced college staff out of work.
    Also relying on the money they get from overseas students doing a 1 year course is a bad business model,I can see that and I don’t get £300,000 per year.

  • I wonder what my great great great great uncle Charles Thotp DD founder of this University in the early 1800s would have to say if he was here today?

  • The university badly treats those there who do work, the academic staff look down on support staff and bully them. However are for the most part even incapable of simple things such as changing a light bulb nor dressing themselves appropriately. Trail a lecturer for a day and see how little they do, how little they know and how they act inappropriately in the work place

    • As a lecturer, who stays up until 2am most nights working, wakes at 7:30, barely has time to eat lunch most days due to the amount of supervision, feedback due, paper submission deadlines, viva/oral exam requests, exam writing, shadowing, professional reviewer activity, paper reviews, personal research, teaching material preparation, lecture recording/setup, grant proposal writing, mentoring (and the list goes on) i’m suffering from work exhaustion and this comment makes me want to cry. While there are few exceptions who take their position for granted (I can think of two lecturers out of about 200), this is definitely not the attitude of the vast majority of us.

      • 👍🏻 Nor was it my experience during the three years I spent there. Doubtless Jame has identified the people he was thinking of, and cited examples of their behaviour, in his feedback reports.


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