Is a Durham degree worth £9,000 a year?


Living in the insular Durham bubble, we rarely get the chance to draw back and take stock of where Durham sits in the higher education landscape of our country. Even when tuition fees rise to £9,000 a year for a degree at our beloved institution, Durham still will provide excellent value for money, not just because of the high quality of teaching, but because of all the extras it can bring.

However, money lies at the heart of this debate, and it would be wrong not to touch upon it first. £9,000 per year is such a huge increase that it grabs headlines and sends students into a frenzy of anxiety. Currently we pay just over a third of that fee, so the jump is a substantial one.

With youth unemployment currently standing at just over 1 million, 21.9% of the 16-24 age group, and projected student debts rising to over £50,000, it would be easy to believe that going to university is no longer worth the huge upfront investment.

By pointing to Durham’s ranking of 15th in the QS world graduate employment table and recent research suggesting that while graduating with a First can mean average annual earnings of £38,753, even a Third class degree can see average earnings of almost £30,000 per year – both far above the £25,000 British average – it would be easy to defend the increased fees as manageable.

Yet, it is very easy for this to turn into a turgid discussion about tuition fees across the nation, and that would not allow us to see why a degree at Durham stands out, and why it is worth paying three times our current fees.

On academic reputation alone, a degree from Durham is one of the best in the whole country. It was not lightly that we were placed third in the Sunday Times University rankings. Durham’s aforementioned globally-high ranking for graduate employment is testament to the high regard in which employers hold a Durham degree. It is hard to be scientific about it, but from those simple facts, you would expect that Durham graduates’ salaries are pushing on the higher side of the average.

But what does the lofty annual fee pay for while you in the process of earning that coveted degree? The main yardstick is usually teaching time. Every student in the country, particularly in Arts subjects, will tell you that they wish they saw their tutors and lecturers more often. Durham’s high numbers of English and History students will bemoan the handful of hours they receive for the same fees as a scientist.

However, university education is, by its very nature, built around independent study. It is the formative stage where we have to grow our mental faculties through a process of discovery and learning, directed by some of the sharpest intellects in the world – but largely undertaken alone.

What matters is the level of direction and the learning environment we are given – and this is where Durham shines. Durham is home to some of the top academics in the world. Most of our departments are amongst the best in the nation. Our teachers are there to inspire and encourage us to engage in the same current, dynamic and critical thought use in the world-leading research.

With government funding being reduced, £9,000 a year is necessary to maintain not only the high level of academics at the university, but also to invest in the best learning environment possible. The £35 million project at the Science site will mean that our library facilities and a number of re-locating departments, will be providing the best conditions possible for independent and teacher-led learning.

But, academic excellence is not what makes Durham truly special. It is the extras that it can offer which make the investment so much more worthwhile.

That £9,000 yearly fee is not only payment for a world-class degree that will hopefully secure you good employment, but it is also allows you to be part of one of the most talented and vibrant university communities around.

Durham is home to some amazing people, and because of the vast range of things you can do at different levels of ability, everyone can engage in whatever they choose. At the pinnacle we have the astounding Durham Revue, university orchestras and choirs, -winning sports sides. Then, at every level below that, college sides or small groups of individuals, are doing the same just in a lesser way, but not without the same passion.

We are privileged to be part of a community that has so much to offer. The college system adds a depth to extra-curricular activities that is not available at other institutions. A Durham degree is worth every penny of the £9,000 a year if you make the most of it and engage in that vibrant community.

Academic success is important, and for some it will be mean a great career and lots of hard-earned money. But with increased tuition fees, people are forced to see university as an investment. “Will whatever I put in now see a big return in the future?”

As a career investment, Durham University is definitely a worthwhile one, and the huge number of graduates flocking to the City after three years is testament to this. However, if you look beyond your money, university can shape your life in many more ways.

Over the last few weeks, the relatively-clichéd phrase “Don’t let your degree get in the way of your education” has been floating around lots of interviews, articles and programmes.

In a time of financial austerity, we all are worrying about if and when we will find future employment. But before worrying about the world beyond the Bubble, we should take the time to enjoy in the fantastic community Durham has to offer.

For £9,000, not only do you get a top degree but you also get a fantastic education.

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