A Durham student has published a report into Northern students’ experiences at Durham University. The report, which has been sent to University Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge, details the experiences of Durham students from the North of England who described feeling unwelcome at the University, and in some cases, have felt forced to live at home during their studies or drop out of Durham.
Lauren White of Van Mildert College interviewed over 20 past and present Durham students from the North of England, the oldest having graduated from Durham in 1996, and the newest having started at Durham this year.
The report asks that the University acknowledges that it has a “toxic culture” towards Northern students, and that ‘background’ is included as a type of discrimination in the student pledge, which every students is required to sign before they begin their studies at Durham.
It also calls on the University to take “re-educational action” to ensure that every student at Durham is aware that prejudice and discrimination against students due to their background is “unacceptable”, and to provide more support for the recpipients of the Supported Progression programme and Northern and working class students, and asks that these students are invited to give evidence and share their experiences.
The report claims that “there is no support for students from Northern, working-class backgrounds” at the University, and that the attitudes of “many” students and staff “directly contradict the terms and conditions of student conduct”.
Testimony from current and former Durham students included in the report shows that Northern students at Durham have been subject to mockery of their accents which have been described as “feral”, “dirty”, and “vulgar”.
In one instance, a student was allegedly subject to physical abuse by another student, where a cigarette was stubbed on the back of their hand.
The report also shows that some Northern students have reported feeling isolated in a college environment and as a result, have chosen to live at home after their first year, or have chosen to drop out of Durham. Lauren White, the author of the report, has chosen to live at home at her Gateshead address this year to complete her final year of study, as a result of the “alienation” she has experienced.
One former student said: “I ended up dropping out of Durham in February 2019 after only five months because of how elitist I found it. I’m from a working class Gateshead family and went on the supported progression programme to get into Durham which I really enjoyed. But then when I got to Durham it was so different to everything I thought it would be.
“I was such an advocate for the Uni and I now tell anyone who’ll listen that it’s one of the worst institutions I’ve ever been a part of.”
Another former student said: “I attended Durham 2013-2017 and I had the most horrendous time there. It resulted in me going to counselling during University and years after because my self esteem became so low.
“I was told repeatedly that the only reason I was at Durham was because my family were on benefits. I was told I would never get a job because of the way I speak, I was told that I was a waste of a worthy student’s place.
“Another thing I remember that I think should be mentioned is ‘rolling in the muck’. It was a thing a lot of students would say referring to them sleeping with a Northern/working class person. I remember there being nights dedicated to ‘rolling in the muck’ where sports teams or societies would go out to try and get with Northern/working class people.”
Another student alleged they had been refused entry to a college bar even after showing their student ID which bar security believed to be forged.
Some students reported not feeling comfortable in seminars. One student said: “I can’t bear seminars sometimes, I just feel like nobody accepts my points because of the way I talk.”
Another student said: “By the end of my first semester in first year I wouldn’t even want to speak in seminars because I felt so conscious of it [my accent].”
When talking about their experience at Durham, one Durham graduate told White: “I honestly think Durham University is just a cesspit where people can get away with saying almost anything with no consequences.”
The University has indicated a commitment to tackling discrimination. In the virtual matriculation ceremony University Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart Corbridge warned students: “If you see misbehaviour, if you see examples of sexism or misogyny or racism or classism, challenge it.” He continued by warning students to “be an active bystander”.
White told BBC Radio Newcastle that the Vice-Chancellor has assured her that the University is committed to working to solve the issues in the report and that Professor Corbridge has asked to have a meeting with her to discuss the report.
Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, said: “We believe that everyone has the right to study and work in an environment that is respectful and where people feel comfortable to be themselves and to flourish.
“For most staff, students, visitors and partners, their experience of Durham University is a very positive one, but we want to do better still.
“We recently published the final report of the Durham Commission on Respect, Values and Behaviour, which we set up to understand better what it is like to study and work here, and how we can create positive change.
“We are now setting up an Oversight Group to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission and explore further actions.
“The ‘Northern Student Experience at Durham University’ report highlights some behaviours which are unacceptable and entirely at odds with our values as a University. In the short time since receiving the report, Lauren and I have agreed both that her report will be considered by the Respect Commission Oversight Group and that we will meet shortly to discuss her findings further.”
Palatinate asked Sarah McAllister, Durham Students’ Union Postgraduate Academic Officer about her own experiences as a Northern student at Durham and action the University has taken to make Durham a more inclusive environment.
She said: “The experiences that are mentioned in the report were not a surprise to me. I’m from just outside Newcastle, and during my Freshers’ Week, back in 2016, I was playing a card game one evening, and I said something along the lines of ‘Oh I know a different version of the rules’ and someone I had just met that evening said to me: ‘Well that’s because you’re from the undereducated North’. That was not banter. It wasn’t funny. This wasn’t the only incident like this, but it is certainly the one that has stuck with me.
“Sometimes, I feel lucky because I don’t have the strongest north-east accent, and often people struggle to place where I’m from, but I shouldn’t have to feel lucky about the fact that my accent hasn’t caused me to experience the same level of discrimination as those mentioned in the report. I am very proud to be from the North East and I’d like to think I’m vocal about that, but particularly in my first term at Durham University it meant that I felt very alone.
“The University has a long way to go in building a more respectful and inclusive environment. Simply talking about BLM or the findings of the Respect commission does not automatically mean that there is cultural change in Durham.
“Regarding active bystanders, the training was delivered to around 550 freps this year, but if they want all students to be active bystanders, they need to commit the funding so it can be available for everyone.
“As an officer team, we are committed to tackling toxic cultures here at Durham. This means acknowledging our own unconscious biases, developing an understanding of microaggressive behaviours and feeling empowered to challenge them and actively engaging in uncomfortable discussions that make us reflect on our own privileges.”
McAllister also said the University should work more closely with schools in Durham and the local community and allow local sixth form students access to the University’s resources.
Lauren White told Palatinate: “The testimonies that this report has been founded upon are equally as shocking to read as they are demoralising. But they have only proven what many of us have suspected for so long: that Durham University promotes a toxic environment for students of Northern, working-class, so-called ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds.
“This is why we are calling on the University to re-educate students, to provide support for existing students who have faced this discrimination and prejudice, and to identify ‘background’ in the Student Pledge as a characteristic which should not be the target of discrimination or unfait treatment. Only then will we have a Uni that works for everyone.”
Lauren White is a third year politics and philosophy student at Van Mildert College and is a recipient of the University’s Supported Progression programme.
As a result of White’s meeting with the Vice-Chancellor and the Respect Report Chair, the University has now agreed to implement a new Student Pledge which will include ‘background’ as a form of discrimination, and White’s report has been referred to the University’s Respect Oversight Committee.
For more information about the Respect Commission, please visit: www.durham.ac.uk/respect
Photography by Amana Moore