New Year’s Resolutions for Durham University

New year, new you, right? But what could Durham University, in the interest of self-improvement, do better in 2018?

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Protect Free Speech

Free speech is under threat across the education sector. The political monotony of the NUS has bred an insidious no-platforming culture that seeks to silence views that differ from its own. Durham University’s New Year’s Resolution should be a commitment to protecting free speech.

Jo Johnson, the former Universities Minister, recently called for all universities to uphold the principle of free speech. However, the solution to this problem is not more state intervention. It is the duty of universities and student unions themselves to expose their members to views which, God forbid, might actually challenge them. The looming threat of government sanctions should be enough motivation to take action.

The statistics regarding free speech on campus make for grim reading. In the most recent spiked Free Speech University Rankings, 61 Higher Education establishments, including Durham University, were given a RED rating. This means that 63.5% of participating universities have “actively censored speech and expression”. It is not hard to find examples of this. King’s College London has been criticised for employing £12-an-hour safe-space martials to police events. Clearly, some will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the discussion of ideas they disagree with at university.

We all have a right to free speech. There is, however, no right to not be offended. Universities have always been places for intellectual engagement, debate, and disagreement. But now, a vocal minority wants to decide which ideas their peers are allowed to hear. They must be stopped.

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Improve Mental Health Services

As Palatinate reported last term, the number of counsellors at the University has been slashed to the extent that the service no longer employs the recommended number of counselling staff.

This suggests that Durham University, despite increasingly urgent calls for better mental health provisions, simply does not care about the psychological wellbeing of thousands of its students. Mental health needs to be properly addressed – and I don’t mean by bringing in dogs to help cope with stress. We need our mental health to become a priority. A YouGov poll reported in 2016 that 77% of students have a fear of failure. One in four students were reported to suffer from mental health problems, primarily depression and anxiety.

These figures suggest that Higher Education institutions are not doing enough to ensure that students’ stress levels are challenging but not overwhelming. Students know that they are going to be tested at university but they do not expect to be under such mental strain that they become unwell.

Durham needs to do better. The conversation about mental health must be wider and more accessible. They must listen to students and their concerns. Counselling services must be equipped with the appropriate resources to support students. We need to continue to erode the stigma around mental health; we need to learn how to listen to our friends and to look after ourselves.

This year, Durham needs to recognise that our wellbeing should not be secondary to our grades. This is a world-class University and it’s time that our mental health provisions reflected this.

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Listen to Students

In 2018, our University needs to listen to its students on the issue of college accommodation fees. Last year, fees increased by a staggering 3.5%. This means that college accommodation will now cost over £7,000 a year, and the new tiered system means that in some instances disabled students may have to pay around £8,000. How is this justifiable?

College accommodation cost under £5,000 a year in 2011; though the economic climate may have changed in the years since, this in no way justifies such disproportionate increases.

Students have now staged multiple protests, including the most recent Palatine Centre protest which was attended by over 100 people. Yet, the University has made little effort to compromise. Pro-Vice-Chancellor Owen Adams, defending the change, said that “all students have been informed of our decision and they have also been  advised how to access financial support should they need it.” But where is this well-publicised guide on how to deal with this significant increase and the its financial strain?

Many students choose Durham for its affordable cost of living, but if we are suddenly forced to pay London premiums, this choice is made redundant. How, in the north of England, can rental prices for residential homes, equipped with better living spaces and more centrally-located, cost far less than the premium to live in college? It is fair to say that, as we move in 2018, the University is attempting to force students into paying big city prices at an establishment that in no way justifies this price hike.

If the University were more transparent with students about where their funds go, instead of attempting to deflect from the issue with such ambiguous terms as ‘the wider student experience’, perhaps there would be less outrage. But until Durham University start to value our student body more by enlightening us with such information, we must continue to voice our discontent. I hope in 2018, the University will begin to listen to us more.

Illustration: Zoë Boothby

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