Prioritise existing students, not prospective ones

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Last week, Durham University Admissions Board announced that it was offering bursaries to incoming undergraduate students who choose to defer their studies for the next year. Following what could, politely, be called the fiasco of the A-level results situation and the ensuing U-turn in government policy, Durham, alongside other universities, has been left with a glut of undergraduate students that they simply cannot find the space for. This bursary offers a potential solution. Encouraging students to defer a year frees up both time and physical space necessary for adhering to the coronavirus restrictions that face students next year. 

On one hand, the introduction of this bursary makes a lot of sense, and seems, to the outsider, to be a generous offer. One particularly heart-breaking post that circulated on social media was by a young mother who would be unable to afford to defer her place at the university due to childcare requirements and nursery placements. For Durham to address this indicates a university that cares – one that’s willing to mitigate the impacts of this situation with financial aid rather than the limp claim that they’re ‘doing their best’.

The bursary for incoming students fits into an image of dynamism that the university seems anxious to portray.

This fits into an image of dynamism that the university seems anxious to portray; we all remember how swiftly Durham was closed down at the end of Epiphany term in order to control a potential coronavirus outbreak. Here we have a university that has, to the onlooker, established itself as a leading party in confronting this virus, and an institution which cares about its students.

There are, however, issues with this. A lot of the action taken seems performative. Note the ambiguity of the statement released regarding the bursary: it doesn’t confirm the amount that will be offered, but instead emphasises Durham’s intent to “do as much as [they] can”. This echoes the university’s shortcomings in other sectors; failing to address the diversity issues rife through Durham (black applicants being half as likely to be enrolled as their white counterparts, for example), while posting the obligatory black square on Instagram, or the fact that it had the nineth highest number of sexual assault reports of any UK university in 2018.

That’s not to mention the fact that the university refuses to reimburse students affected by the Michaelmas and Epiphany strikes. Accompanied by the move to online teaching during Easter term, students have had lectures replaced by handouts and some tutorials entirely missed in the run-up to exams. There are students who have had twelve weeks of teaching over the entire academic year. It seems at best blind, and at worst, callous for Durham to offer incoming students funds that could be allocated to addressing the structural issues that generated the strikes in the first place. Addressing the gender wage gap (which stands at 23.6%) and widening access routes could be a place to start.

It seems that once you’ve enrolled into the system, the university’s attention again turns outwards.

If I were supposed to be coming to Durham this year, I’d probably take the bursary, along with the chance of a more normal experience next October, when all the cornerstones of Durham life are more likely to be back where they should be. But I’d be wary of buying wholeheartedly into any idea that such generosity will continue; it seems that once you’ve enrolled into the system, the university’s attention again turns outwards. Durham claims to offer “an outstanding student experience” to encourage students to take the bursary. This seems highly ironic given that this was the reason cited for the lack of tuition reimbursement this year. It leaves me wondering – which side of the Durham experience is the reality? I’d like to believe that it is the committed, dynamic force that brought me here, but I’m not so sure.

Image: Scott Hewitt via Unsplash.

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