Lack of University presence “disappoints” students at accommodation fee consultation

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On Tuesday 2nd February, Durham students were invited to participate in a ‘University-wide’ further consultation on accommodation fees.

The consultation was hosted by the Durham Student’s Union (DSU) and led by SU President Millie Tanner. She explained that the purpose of the consultation, was to ‘properly’ consult students on their views about fees before the University set rent prices for 2017/18, which they will do later this term.

Many students were disappointed about the notable absence of any University Staff or executive committee members at the consultation itself. This was in spite of the email advertising the event ambiguously stating that “the University have agreed to consult with students on accommodation fees”  and an email from the Vice Chancellor on the 9th December 2015 committing to consultation following the ‘Funeral for Accessible education’ protest against rising fees.

The consultation took the form of previous DSU run ‘Zone meetings’, with students split into four groups to discuss three questions proposed by the University, around the issue of accommodation fees. Students were informed that comments and opinions expressed in these small group discussions would be recorded and be presented directly to the University Executive Committee. Firstly, at a second consultation later this term between student officers, JCR presidents and the Vice Chancellor, and secondly in the DSU’s general consultation with the University’s decision making board

Tanner however, stressed that the DSU could not be held accountable to the University, and defended the approach to the consultation taken and that it was a “step in the right direction”.

She stressed that the University now ‘wants’ to consult with students on this issue and was ‘keen to hear student voices’.

Tanner ensured that the Students’ Union is continuing to “push for a sustainable solution” through measures like a long-term funding plan.

She said: “This isn’t about getting the fees as low as possible for now so we shut up and stop complaining and then forgetting by the time we’ve moved on and graduated.”

A further concern raised by several students was that there was no opportunity within the consultation to challenge 2016/17 fees, but only to have a say in 2017/18 fees. One student said it was as though the Students Union had ‘given up’ on 2016/17.

The questions discussed were, “Which elements of college accommodation are most important?” “What would the impact of a differential pricing system be?”  and “What shape should a grant funding structure take to offset fee increases?”

Comments which came out of these discussions included calls for more transparency in the university’s ‘capital and investment’ spending, student input on this kind of expenditure, and more consultation style events on this issue at a college level. A concern for the diversity of students at Durham and fears of ‘pricing out’ prospective students was another prominent theme.

There was a feeling amongst several students at the consultation however, that the questions proposed for discussion by the University had been ‘leading’.

One student said she felt “insulted” at the questions asked.

Another student asked: “What more do the University want to know? Student groups in Durham have been consistently clear on what they want – a freeze in rents and more transparency.”

He said he was worried that the questions proposed by the University, particularly about the possibility of differential lets was “already leading the discussion in a certain direction”.

There was a strong consensus amongst students present that differential lets for different colleges would have a negative impact on student life at Durham, driving divides between,  and lack of diversity within colleges.

Speaking about how helpful the consultation had been overall, 2nd year Psychology student and Senior Student’s Union Representative for Van Mildert College JCR Exec, Nicholas Mainwaring, said that in spite of the event being billed as an opportunity to speak to University staff about this issue, the consultation was “constructive”.

He said “I thought that the zone meeting as it turned out was a good opportunity to discuss these things with other people across the University and come up with points that then could be taken to a meeting with the staff and represent the students’ views.”

He added however,  that this element was somewhat “overshadowed” by that fact that when there was an opportunity for the groups to discuss overall points it turned into “a bit of an attack”, mainly directed at Millie Tanner.

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