By Ben Sladden
Prior to formulating their five-year strategy, Durham Students’ Union ran a Raise Your Voice Campaign to gauge student opinion on how to fulfil three main aims:
“We will make student life easier and fairer”, “we’ll build communities and create citizens” and “we’ll transform education”.
Despite the claims that student politics is “out of touch” and “self-aggrandising”, the Raise Your Voice Campaign has drawn attention to the priorities of students on both Durham and Queen’s Campuses.
Raise Your Voice sessions were carried out in Durham and Stockton last month.
The research highlighted that half of students surveyed from both campuses, when asked to identify “Which out of these three are the most important areas for us to focus on and will be the biggest problem or concern over the next 5 years?”, cited mental health as the main priority.
Rosa Tallack, Welfare and Liberation Officer, spoke to Palatinate about the specific measures the SU plans on taking in tackling the problem – an issue she describes as “especially close to my heart”.
Rosa spoke of the need to ensure “students have access to the resources, support and advocacy they need, when they need it.
“Personally, I have priorities this year around improving student support across campus, including scrutiny of services, as well as championing peer-led support.
“Our Postgraduate Academic Officer, Sabrina, is tackling the issue of support for postgraduate students, who are often particularly vulnerable in this regard.
“Our strategy recognises that there are many elements of student life here in Durham that need to be tackled in order to improve mental health – academic stress (e.g. unreasonable deadlines, poor support process and inflexible provisions for mental illness), housing issues, financial stress and sexual violence to name a few that we will be working to address.
“We know, for example, that poor quality housing, a key part of our new strategy, has a hugely detrimental impact on students’ mental and physical health.”
Besides mental health concerns, 39% of students surveyed underlined the need for high-quality affordable accommodation, for both livers in and out.
The debate over accommodation has reached new heights in recent weeks, following the University’s decision to raise fees against the SU’s campaign for a freeze.
Palatinate also reported that St Aidan’s finalists are now required to pay up to £8,119 for a room – the first time undergraduate college fees have surpassed £8,000 (p5). An additional protest is planned for 29th November.
Some students have said the fee hikes make Durham inaccessible to those from a lower socio-economic background.
In relation to the private market, Rosa said the SU could help ensure some oversight over the quality of education “by providing a platform for students to bring together the knowledge, experience, issues and ideas they experience as tenants, so that we can facilitate developing solutions and partnerships.
“We’re in the housing market, but we’re not a voice in the housing market, so this year, I want to establish a Tenants’ Union, so that we are.”
In response to Palatinate’s question “are you surprised at the results of the Raise Your Voice Campaign and it’s focus towards housing in particular,” Durham Campus student Daniel Mercieca responded: “I am moderately surprised… I am in my second year of living out and have experienced poor quality housing both years.
Students in Stockton ranked different priorities than their Durham City counterparts “This year the repairs have been swift and to a high standard but last year repairs for things like a shower took up to two weeks.
“This is an issue which affects nearly all students and is not being resolved. I’d say the elevated pricing exacerbates the issue of quality.”
The third most popular option in answering this question was “eliminating sexual violence and harassment on campus”.
32% chose this option as the biggest concern for the Students’ Union over the next five years.
In answer to the question “which are the most effective and impactful ways we can create communities and help students become good citizens?”, Durham and Stockton students differed in their priorities.
Though both campuses emphasised that “ensuring the University consults with students on decisions which affect them” is the top priority, Durham students then ranked “creating opportunities for students to get involved in community projects” as second place and “encouraging political engagement” as third.
For Queen’s Campus, priorities were ranked differently, with “creating opportunities for students to get involved in our work” and “creating opportunities for students to get involved in community projects” ranked respectively second and third.
In answering the question “which of these are most important to you, or are the ones you see as truly transforming education?”, Durham students ranked their top priority as “widening participation (helping students into HE who wouldn’t usually consider studying at this level)”.
Their joint second priority was reported to be “reducing the attainment gap (levelling the playing field)” and “better assessment feedback”.
Answering the same question, Stockton ranked “better assessment feedback” as their top priority, “diversifying the curriculum” as second and “more accessible courses (cost)” as third.
The Raise Your Voice Campaign is part of the student consultation that will steer the Students’ Union in their decision making this year.
Photograph via Creative Commons (Tim Packer / TSP).