Navigating the two sides of Durham University

Parts of this article were previously published in the Editorial to Issue 807.

 By Sophie Gregory

Leaving Palatinate last week felt strange. I have been at this paper since first year; it has been the cor­nerstone of my university experi­ence. Leaving this newspaper, however, was not nearly as strange as the prospect of leaving Durham University itself. I think that’s because, though this paper has at times been a source of stress, I am certain that my Palatinate experience has been a positive one. But Durham in general? I’m not so sure.

I graduate tomorrow. I will move my boxes out for the final time, I will say goodbye to the friends who have kept me sane these past years, and I will never set foot in Billy B again. The nostalgia, however, is bittersweet. My college wife would say that this University has a ‘gemini nature’ and, as much as I usually scoff at this, it’s hard to deny that Durham has two distinct sides: the one that I will miss and the one that I am grateful to finally escape.

There is the ‘best experience of my life’ side of this University: the side of ice creams on Palace Green and brunch with friends, of picturesque views and good nights in Newcastle. The side of Flat White eggs, of formals, of balls and fancy dress.

It’s hard to deny that Durham has two distinct sides

But there is also a much more insidious element: the ‘this place has left me exhausted’ side, punctuated by incessant feelings of inadequacy, of stress, of panic; a crippling kind of insecurity. Confidence hard fought for over years of school is suddenly threatened again. The identity you had just begun to form is immediately weakened.

Academic stress is exacerbated by inadequate mental health facilities

Durham sells itself as a network of friendly colleges, welfare teams, and groups like Nightline who want to support students in any way that they can. There is a genuine sense, particularly amongst student groups, that we must help and support one another. But it’s impossible to ignore the undercurrent of academic anxiety that pervades this City during summative and exam season, a deeply embedded part of Durham’s culture that we cannot expect welfare teams and student support groups to tackle alone. This academic stress is then exacerbated by inadequate mental health facilities and an expansion plan that unashamedly prioritises rankings and money over the needs of students and local people.

Some lecturers just seem too busy to care

There’s a Durham that makes you glad you go to this ‘Top 100 University’. The Durham made up of lecturers who actually reply to your emails, who invite you to office hours, who carve out the time to see you, who genuinely seem to care. But, again, there is another side: the lecturers who seem too busy to reply to you, who chuck a couple of ticks on your summative and provide vague feedback, who are unapproachable – those who don’t seem to care very much at all. It is hard as a student to adjust to the new standards you are held to; it is even harder when the academics you respect make no effort to welcome you, to familiarise you with your new environment.

There’s a Durham of incredible inclusivity. You only have to leave the house to see someone wearing stash that denotes belonging, whether to a society, a college, a sport. Such inclusivity and community are what makes Durham a great University, one that provides networks for those in need. Again, though, there is a darker side. A side that is deeply elitist, snobbish and patronising – please stop patting me on the arm and telling me that my parents “must be so proud” when I mention my school.

You only have to leave your house to see stash that denotes belonging

Too many people at this University feel excluded. With rising rent prices, inflated accommodation fees, and a dangerous drinking culture, Durham’s more problematic side is getting harder and harder to ignore. As the expansion plan continues to fundamentally change the City that we know, it is time to acknowledge that elements of this University are deeply exclusionary. More could be done to make this institution accessible – financially and physically. More could be done to support the local community, to foster a better relationship between local residents and students.

It’s time to acknowledge the many people at this University who do not experience the positive side of Durham. Those who feel lonely, alienated, unable to engage with Durham in a productive way, who often suffer in silence. We need recognise and tackle this undercurrent of frustration and resentment in order to reconcile many of Durham University’s issues.

I am concerned for the future of Durham

Change is coming – groups like DPOCA and LGBTQA+ are helping to give some students the support they might be lacking in other areas of university life. These groups are thriving, and I hope they continue to thrive in the future. My own small contribution has been the work I did at this paper. It has been not only a platform for me and other students to hold Durham to account, but also one to celebrate student life, the good and the bad.

Change is coming – but it might not come fast enough

As I come to graduate, I am struck by how Janus-faced this university experience has been. Stumbling on into the big bad world, I look at Durham and I cannot help but be concerned. I am concerned for the students who simply can’t save enough to survive Durham’s rent, for those who require access to mental health facilities, for the local residents and what their City will look like. I am concerned for the future of this University.

Change is coming. But still I worry that if this change is solely the hard work of students, and not supported by University management, it will not come fast enough, and the brighter side of Durham will be completely engulfed.

Photograph: Sophie Gregory

3 Responses

Leave a Reply
  1. Adam Smith
    Jun 27, 2018 - 12:57 PM

    Welcome to the real world – life is hard. To succeed you need to be tough, thick-skinned and resilient. If exams and coursework stress you out, wait till you have a job and a family to provide for! It seems harsh I know but people need to learn how to take care of themselves, that is what University is for. That’s my opinion.

  2. nemo
    Jun 27, 2018 - 05:43 PM

    If you think exams and assessment make *you* stressed, then consider why some lecturers seem “too busy to care”.

    The traditional view of the ivy-covered teacher in the ivy-covered hall who turns up, tosses off a quick chalk-&-talk then toddles off home to a life of quiet contemplation is long, long gone. Academics now are scrutinised and inundated with metrics even more than you are. Every MEQ, every NSS return can be used as a weapon if someone thinks the number attached is jut a little bit too low. And that’s before you even get to the REF, with pressure being heaped upon you to churn out outputs to push your institution up the tables, because there are reputational and financial consequences for the University, and for you, if you don’t. And at a University like this, the quality of that research needs to be good. Then if you’re an early career academic, you have to do this, and get much laborius administrivia heaped upon you, without much in the way of security, because short-term contracts dependent on ongoing research funding are still common.

    It’s hard for everyone. The press to succeed is in many ways an intrinsic one. IF you’re here the likelihood is that you bought into all of this much earlier on in your life, and Imposter Syndrome is more widespread than you’d think; few people don’t suffer from that particular insecurity.

    It doesn’t get any easier.

  3. Heather Speight
    Jul 04, 2018 - 12:25 PM

    This is an excellent thoughtful and enlightening article . Thank you Sophie!


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