The Durham bubble is about to burst

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On nearly every house in Durham, just to the side of the front door, there will be a small arch-shaped enclave, sometimes with an old, rusted metal bar across it. Going virtually unnoticed, this bygone feature was for returning miners to scrape their shoes before coming home for tea.

Further vestiges of Durham’s mining past are sprinkled over the city – relics of an age never to return. In its place is a swelling student population which has quickly subsumed an old pit-town, and boasts of being one of the best higher education institutions in the country whilst seeking to expand further.

Vestiges of Durham’s mining past are sprinkled over the city

But at what cost? The question is how much responsibility the University has to a community it has both usurped and ironically saved. Without the University, Durham would be yet another deprived Northern town making ends meet from trickling tourism, providing £400m and 6,600 jobs. And yet, many feel that we’re losing what Durham is and was.

Hundreds of millions of pounds of investment is flowing into the University, which will doubtlessly benefit the area financially, but with an unspecified cost to its culture.

Culture and community are easy terms to scoff at, and in modern times have been demonised. This contempt will only continue whilst humanities are a shadow of their former selves and objective, globally orientated STEM subjects reign supreme.

But Durham has a people and a lineage stretching further back than St. Bede’s body in the Cathedral. We are not UCL, LSE, or any other metropolitan, urban institution: a blank slate ripe for corporate investment.

Durham is a UNESCO World Heritage site; it is a community of both locals and students.

Our sporting prowess, our events like DUCFS and our sprawl of societies are almost unparalleled. But I am reticent to give the University credit for what are student-motivated achievements. It is the system we’ve had that has led to us attracting such extraordinary individuals who have done so much, and which is being lost.

Durham is a community of both local and students

The reduction of college staff in the Operations Review has thrown chaos the Collegiate system’s way. This system is the only thing to differentiate Durham from its Russell Group competitors, and yet the administration threaten its existence with cuts and untimely construction projects.

Bullish and poor decisions by administrators displaced over half of Trevs freshers this year, and did similar to Hatfield students the year before. The University’s ‘Master Plan’ intends to add 4,000 more students by 2027 from the current 19,000.

Can a small pit town deal with 21% more students

Even though Durham pledges to house 55% of students in University accommodation by then, it says little about local concerns. Can a small pit town deal with 21% more students when infrastructure barely accommodates the current crop?

Lack of housing, train seat shortages leaving people standing for hours, poor parking and excessive congestion cannot be fixed overnight, and maybe not even at all. Not to mention how even now students overwhelm and alienate homegrown locals.

But the University doesn’t give these issues due concern. Stuart Corbridge’s congregation and matriculation speeches left me, my family and my friends’ families disappointed.

There was little to inspire undergraduates when his esoteric, self-aggrandising rhetoric made no mention of student satisfaction or the local area but merely lauded research, global appeal, and ‘diversity’.

Corbridge claims that ‘we do the student experience better than Oxbridge’, and this is scant achievement. At one of the Cambridge summer balls my housemate attended, he was dismayed to find Cantabs merely sipping VKs trying to enjoy their anaemic idea of fun. His sister burst her appendix after finishing her finals.

We are called the University of Durham, something which future plans fail to recognise

No one looks at Oxbridge for its glittering student experience. If this is the bar we try to surpass, it is rather low. It is a question of what this institution is. We are called the University of Durham, something which future plans fail to recognise.

To paraphrase David Goodhart’s book, The Road to Somewhere, this University certainly is a ‘somewhere’ – a locality, a place which defines and yet is also importantly defined by where it is. But the Administration treats us like ‘anywheres’, not taking concerns about Durham City seriously, with a global, dislocated identity in mind.

Perhaps, Durham ought to heed advice from St. Andrew’s, now ranked the best UK University by The Times Good University Guide, whilst Durham stays 7th due to abysmal student satisfaction scores.

With a similar historical past, but with merely 9000 students, St. Andrew’s is aware of its own identity and doesn’t seek to be something it is not.

Durham’s administration would do well to take note.

Image by Mrgarethm via Flickr

11 thoughts on “The Durham bubble is about to burst

  • I find your comment that without the university Durham would be just another deprived northern town extremely patronising. Firstly we are a city not a town and we certainly would not be deprived without the university,it may come as a surprise to the university but when the students go at the end of term we do not crumble into a economic depression and pray for the day the students return we do actually have employment here outside of the university. The city was here long before the university Durham is a city that has a university within it some people in the university seem to think it’s the other way around

    Reply
  • Durham University had a perfectly good satellite site at the Queens Campus in Stockton on Tees – 20 miles away – with over 2000 students and the school of Medicine, relieving pressure on the system.

    Of course the University saw fit to move it to Durham, bringing all those students to an already overcrowded market and damaging the economy of Stockton into the bargain. Turning it into an “international welcome centre” for foreign students is hardly an adequate replacement.

    Reply
  • Your comment ‘Durham would be yet another deprived northern town’ to be extremely ignorant and arrogant – as does your throwaway comment ‘tricking tourism’. Over 200,000 people attended the Durham Miners Gala 2019 (more than double 10 years previously), one of the largest trade union events in Europe. Maybe it would be in your interests as a journalist to actually speak to some Durham residents or ex-miners, visit Redhills or attend the Gala to substantiate any throwaway and patronising comments you make.

    Reply
  • It’s quite a strange article, this. There’s more than a grain of truth in it, but it’s mixed with such an amount of sneering patrician condescension that much of it is lost.

    First off, boot scrapers are not just for pit villages. They’re quite common in the north, especially in rural and farming areas where muddy boots were hardly unusual. The were also quite common in cities when the traffic was mainly horse-drawn; I’ll leave you to work out why. Second, Durham has been a major English city for a thousand years. The bloody great cathedral in the middle may have had something to do with that, and the fact it was (and remains) one the country’s most eminent bishoprics, and was long before there was a University here. Third, the pressure on the centre of Durham from the University are not new. Even in the middle of the century, concerns were being raised about the ability of the University to sustain expansion in the centre of Durham itself. They were certainly loud in the 1980s and 1990s too. Plus ça change…

    It is true that St Andrews has managed to find its way to the top of the University League tables with a very small, boutique student court. But the city of St Andrews itself is even smaller than Durham. It’s easy to forget that Durham is more than its rather ancient centre, and what differences there are in strategic direction and position between the two places. It all depends upon what store you place on league tables themselves, and what level of scepticism you apply to the things they are measuring.

    However, the University is a significant part of the City’s economy now, for better or worse, and that includes not just the immediate provisions, but supply chains and other services that the University uses. Indeed, if recent estimates are to be believed then the University contributes around a billion pounds worth of economic activity to the region.

    Historically, the University was small. When I was a student there were fewer third of the students of today. Yet even then there were concerns about house prices in the centre, the lack of accommodation, how quickly the University was expanding, and whether it was affordable both for local people, and for many students (even though the issues about social exclusion, though extant then, were less vocal as there were still full grants, and no tuition fees).

    It’s been clear for a number of years that new college capacity was needed if the university was to grow. The lack of college capacity, and then also deciding to relocate Stockton colleges back in impacts collegiate experience. The more students can stay in college, the better is is for cohesive college communities. The pressures on living space means many students are more separated from colleges, and this actually damages the very thing which is being sold as Durham’s USP: the richness of the college experience. The age of much of the University’s estate doesn’t help. It’s expensive to maintain and upgrade, so things like estate services and IT take huge amounts of effort to even stand still in the current environment in comparsion to other places that don’t always carry so much of that burden.

    I understand why some of the decisions about the University’s expansion have been take, but I don’t agree with them all. Th envier sit his ours, but also not. We hold it in trust for those to come after us. Not just the epos, who study here but the people who have to work for it, and to liv din its shadow. We need to ensure that the University is being a repsonsible and cooperative part of the whole community, and not just paying lip-service to the idea while doing quite the opposite. When that happens, you get a culture of antagonism and mistrust, which helps absolutely no one, and gets no one the outcome we all want: a University the City can be proud of, and which supports and sustains the City too.

    Reply
    • Apologies for typos (this was hacked out quickly on a mobile device)

      Reply
  • I’m in my later sixties, and have lived in Durham – on and off, but mostly on – literally since infancy. So I can fairly call myself a very long-term Durham resident.

    I think Josh Preston has written an excellent article here, and his misgivings about the University’s conduct and attitudes in recent times accord entirely with the reality, which has been scandalous. I would add, though, that the culprits have been the two most recent Vice-Chancellors – Stuart Corbridge, and Chris Higgins before him – and people in the University management. Not the university body as a whole. A lot of the academics hate the way things are being run, and have meanwhile experienced drastic worsening of their working and contract conditions. Ancillary staff are being treated as expendables, and their work outsourced to individuals and groups remote from the colleges where these staff had been familiar, very knowledgeable members of those communities. Students seem to be regarded, at the top, purely as units in an income flow, and ingredients in the PR of Vcs and management touting Durham as a big willy global university.

    I grew up alongside the University. My father was a tutor in the (then) Extra-Mural Department. I did an MA here in the early 1980s. Until just over a decade ago, the university – already large and highly prestigious – lived in remarkable harmony with the town, to which its settled academics in particular made immeasurable contribution. Then, under Higgins, the University simply went rogue.

    This was when a pre-planned civic hi-jack manifested in 2009, when a commissar group called ‘Durham City Vision’ came into the open with a ‘regeneration’ scheme for our Market Place. The scheme was stupid and hideous, and occasioned huge opposition. This coincided with the abolition of Durham City’s and the other District Councils, and the takeover of City and County by the new unitary Durham County Council. The County passed the Market Place scheme. The results are, truly, stupid and hideous. Being covered with stalls and people on a sunny day ameliorates it a bit. But in drabber, emptier conditions, one encounters an anti-place. Was it deliberately made that way, to divest people of any sense of belonging? Frankly, I suspect so.

    The County Council, in a concordat with Higgins and the University management, oversaw the town turned pell-mell into a huge student farm. Durham ceased overnight to be run as a civilised city. Student noise and squalor have been a real ordeal for a lot of residents, but as individuals students (as a resident might meet them) are vastly harmless, very generally likeable and sometimes seriously impressive people, so it’s not the students who should bear the blame for Durham’s troubles – or should have any guilt feelings at all about being here, I feel I should add! The blame lies with the Uni management, the Council, and the corporates who are actually creaming off the lion’s share of Durham profits into a few deep pockets. Their high-handedness and neglect has been utterly destructive on the ground, and has gone on heedless of serious, well-informed warnings. The death of student Olivia Burt, in an accident caused by stupid, out-of-control circumstances outside Missoula nightclub last year, was the kind of thing the disregard of the Uni and ‘evening economy’ proprietors, among others, had made appallingly likely to happen. As for the others in that particular crowd, who have had to live with it – none of them set out that night to cause a death. It is Corbridge, funnelling students ceaselessly into the town with utter lack of concern about increasingly dangerous late-night bottlenecks, and the bars that have attracted large crowds of already inebriated kids with cut-price drink offers, who have had things to answer for. And this stuff about students being “responsible young adults” – it’s exculpatory hogwash. They’re still – to whatever extent – kids. This isn’t a put-down. I look back at myself as a student, and that’s what I see!

    I could go on, but I’ll leave it there.

    Reply
    • Excellent post, this. With lots to unpick, but with lots of which I agree wholeheartedly.

      Reply
  • I’m in my later sixties, and have lived in Durham – on and off, but mostly on – literally since infancy. So I can fairly call myself a very long-term Durham resident.

    I think Josh Preston has written an excellent article here, and his misgivings about the University’s conduct and attitudes in recent times accord entirely with the reality, which has been scandalous. I would add, though, that the culprits have been the two most recent Vice-Chancellors – Stuart Corbridge, and Chris Higgins before him – and people in the University management. Not the university body as a whole. A lot of the academics hate the way things are being run, and have meanwhile experienced drastic worsening of their working and contract conditions. Ancillary staff are being treated as expendables, and their work outsourced to individuals and groups remote from the colleges where these staff had been familiar, very knowledgeable members of those communities. Students seem to be regarded, at the top, purely as units in an income flow, and ingredients in the PR of Vcs and management touting Durham as a big willy global university.

    I grew up alongside the University. My father was a tutor in the (then) Extra-Mural Department. I did an MA here in the early 1980s. Until just over a decade ago, the university – already large and highly prestigious – lived in remarkable harmony with the town, to which its settled academics in particular made immeasurable contribution. Then, under Higgins, the University simply went rogue.

    This was when a pre-planned civic hi-jack manifested in 2009, when a commissar group called ‘Durham City Vision’ came into the open with a ‘regeneration’ scheme for our Market Place. The scheme was stupid and hideous, and occasioned huge opposition. This coincided with the abolition of Durham City’s and the other District Councils, and the takeover of City and County by the new unitary Durham County Council. The County passed the Market Place scheme. The results are, truly, stupid and hideous. Being covered with stalls and people on a sunny day ameliorates it a bit. But in drabber, emptier conditions, one encounters an anti-place. Was it deliberately made that way, to divest people of any sense of belonging? Frankly, I suspect so.

    The County Council, in a concordat with Higgins and the University management, oversaw the town turned pell-mell into a huge student farm. Durham ceased overnight to be run as a civilised city. Student noise and squalor have been a real ordeal for a lot of residents, but as individuals students (as a resident might meet them) are vastly harmless, very generally likeable and sometimes seriously impressive people, so it’s not the students who should bear the blame for Durham’s troubles – or should have any guilt feelings at all about being here, I feel I should add! The blame lies with the Uni management, the Council, and the corporates who are actually creaming off the lion’s share of Durham profits into a few deep pockets. Their high-handedness and neglect has been utterly destructive on the ground, and has gone on heedless of serious, well-informed warnings. The death of student Olivia Burt, in an accident caused by stupid, out-of-control circumstances outside Missoula nightclub last year, was the kind of thing the disregard of the Uni and ‘evening economy’ proprietors, among others, had made appallingly likely to happen. As for the others in that particular crowd, who have had to live with it – none of them set out that night to cause a death. It is Corbridge, funnelling students ceaselessly into the town with utter lack of concern about increasingly dangerous late-night bottlenecks, and the bars that have attracted large crowds of already inebriated kids with cut-price drink offers, who have had things to answer for. And this stuff about students being “responsible young adults” – it’s exculpatory hogwash. They’re still kids. This isn’t a put-down. I look back at myself as a student, and that’s what I see!

    I could go on, but I’ll leave it there.

    Reply
  • Refreshing to see the assertion of Durham Uni’s unique character, charm and prestige. It’s frustrating to see Durham consistently rank below Imperial, LSE (etc), it absolutely does not tell the full story. Due to a sort of inherited position (with an awesome alumni and other things), Durham carries a weight, an authority that the other non-Oxbridge top uni’s do not . That is why it’s a huge aspiration for (state school students in particular) to come here.
    All these things considered, the huge expansion of the university is an absolute tragedy. As a fresher, I worked so hard to get here. The prospect of joining an academically exclusive, elite, meritocratic institution like Durham was a big deal for me. I feel this expansion, along with other changes such as the general relaxation of admission requirements, are watering down the strength of my (future) degree and are reducing the pride I feel in being educated in such a place…

    It is important to note I am referring to the academic elitism of Durham, not social elitism or anything of that sort. Unbiased meritocratic elitism is objectively a good thing.

    Reply
  • Lots of good points here.
    I think this is a conflict with 3 players ; 1. The city, 2. The students, 3. The university authorities.
    The City folk and students are on the same side. Neither want to see the university keep growing beyond its natural size. But the university authorities are judged on how many bodies they can stuff into their sausage machine and so they want to keep the numbers growing. The funding system gives them perverse incentive for expansion. St Andrews is the most obvious example of a British university that has found a better way. Sadly Durham is following the crowd…
    The student experience will be diluted and the local people will be hacked off…

    Reply

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