“Don’t apply there. All students do there is study. That’s why they call it Dullham.” I am sixteen and my elder sister is advising me on where to study. Luckily, I had already visited Durham and had been charmed by the city’s cobbled streets, riverside walks, and quaint cafés – not to mention the University’s topping of the league tables. I ignored my sister’s advice.
“Durham. The university for students who, for some inexplicable reason, don’t make it into Oxbridge.” I have my offer now. I sleep with the acceptance letter next to my bed, using it as motivation as I muddle through my A Levels. The comment came from some snooty, mercifully distant, relative at a family gathering, perhaps intended as a test of my character. I was already aware of Durham’s reputation as a haven for Oxbridge rejects. I didn’t see why this should bother me. Now ‘Oxford or Cambridge?’ functions as a distinct Durham ice-breaker; a lighthearted acknowledgement of shared trauma.
Not all of my conversations about Durham have evoked such scepticism. Plenty of people talk about Durham with twinkling eyes, reminiscing on the small town’s bustling beauty or acknowledging the University’s academic status. These people recognise Durham students as more than overly studious Oxbridge rejects. True, Durham will always be third on any list of UK universities, but bronze can be as distinctive as silver or gold. People talk about the ‘Durham difference’, asserting that student life in this small north-eastern town constitutes a unique university experience.
I don’t think student life at Durham is in any way homogenous. The collegiate system, for instance, ensures that social class acts as a determiner of student experience and interaction. It didn’t take me long to learn that living at the top of the hill placed me at the bottom of the social pile. I’d chosen Butler out of a desire for culinary independence and an appreciation for the college’s celebration of female suffragism. From an applicant’s perspective, Butler ticked all the boxes: oven, en-suite, activism. It never occurred to me that my choice of college would serve as indicator of my economic background, or that my peers would determine and dismiss me as a ‘JoBo.’ I certainly didn’t anticipate becoming complicit to the act of college-based judgement. I would have laughed at the suggestion that I might take my class-mates’ colleges into account when discerning their characters.
Yet I don’t dispute the idea of Durham’s essential difference. Nor do I underestimate the collegiate system’s enrichment of my own student experience. Butler enabled me to experience the University as one amidst hundreds as opposed to thousands. It is far easier to become known in college than on campus, and I was soon able to pick out the familiar faces of fellow Butlerites from the masses of unknown faces swarming through the city. Colleges tackle the sense of anonymity and isolation that have detracted from the undergraduate experiences of some of my friends at other universities. As someone who came to Durham alone, I don’t know how I would have made friends or engaged with student activities without the help of my college.
Comparing Covid-19 experiences with friends at other universities has also affirmed my sense that Durham offers a ‘different’ and enhanced university experience. I don’t claim that the University has been perfect or that the studying situation is in any sense ideal, but listening to friends rant about their closed university libraries, their lack of access to online services, the break down of class communication and their lack of consultation has alerted me to the comparative privilege of my situation. How can I, someone who can get library books delivered to me by post and at no expense, who receives weekly updates on the University’s pandemic policy and who’s lectures have become longer without the pressure of a ticking clock, claim that my university is making no effort at accommodation or support?
Just how universities gain their reputations will always be a mystery. Who decided that Exeter should be defined by its sporting reputation, that the drugs scene at Bristol and Leeds was in any way distinct, or that Liverpool was the place to go for a party? I don’t know who coined the term ‘Durham difference’, or which exact element of student experience they viewed as distinct. I do know that Durham deserves to be singled out, that it offers students a unique university experience, and that my sister was wrong in determining Durham as ‘dull.’
Photograph: Amana Moore.