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.
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.
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?
Image: Faye Saulsbury