By Anna Noble
It is no secret that Durham has had its fair share of outrage-inducing scandals. Like any institution we must criticise it when things go wrong or are mishandled by the University, but we should also praise the University when they get it right. The recent ‘scandal’ involving the revelation that the University was offering training sessions intended to promote safety in sex work for students is an example of the latter.
A cross-party coalition of MP’s, sections of the press, and the usual social media suspects reacted with outrage to this revelation. The Minister for Further Education, Michelle Donelan attacked the University accusing Durham of “legitimising a dangerous industry”, Labour MP Diane Abbott echoed Donelan’s comments on Twitter arguing that sex work is “degrading” and Universities “should have nothing to do with it”. These outraged responses were triggered by inflammatory headlines, such as in The Times, accusing Durham of “training” students to be sex workers. This should be recognised for what it is: a misrepresentation by the press, likely to support a narrative that ‘woke’ universities going too far.
The University hit back, with a poised statement clarifying that they are “emphatically not seeking to encourage sex work” they are “seeking to provide support” emphasising that the University “don’t judge, we listen, support and give practical help.”
Last year, a Save the Student’s survey found that out of the 3% of students that had taken part in sex work, 27% had used OnlyFans. It also found that four percent of those surveyed have tried traditional sex work. With some reporting that they had turned to sex work in order to buy essentials or pay their rent, others revealed that they used the earnings to fund their studies. The Sun also reported this year that the English Collective of Prostitutes has also revealed that calls to their helpline have increased by a third this year. Students becoming involved in sex work including on sites such as OnlyFans is a reality and therefore, universities must address it, similarly to how Durham have – listening, supporting, not judging but aiming to promote safety.
Instead of criticising universities for offering acknowledging reality and actively trying to keep students safe and supported, perhaps MPs should focus upon the reasons that students might be choosing to turn towards sex work.
As the Save the Student survey showed, the financial incentive for students of sex work cannot be dismissed. The financial burden on students in the UK, specifically England is perhaps now higher than ever. In the past 20 years tuition fees have increased by over nine-fold from £1,000 per year in 1998 to the current maximum of £9,250, these have notably tripled in the past decade constituting what is the biggest rise in tuition cost for any nation globally. Cost of living increases have also negatively impacted students alongside rocketing student housing prices. Even with student loans, most students leave university with considerable debt, into a job market which post-pandemic is increasingly competitive, and face the prospect of potentially never being able to make it onto the property ladder due to rising costs in the housing market.
The impact of the financial strains of the pandemic on students also cannot be overlooked. In her response claiming that Durham is “badly failing” students through these courses, Donelan cites the £85 million the Government gave universities to help students in financial hardship, working out to just £33.60 per student. Whilst not all students will require the money it remains clear that this is woefully short of being able to support students.
Is it any surprise that some students are looking to supplement their income with sex work or joining platforms such as OnlyFans? If MPs want to discourage students from undertaking sex work, perhaps they should look at making university more affordable, and lessen the financial burden on graduates. Attacking universities for attempting to ensure students are safe and supported exposes them for attempted point scoring and woefully missing the mark. Durham, however, has got their response right.
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