To watch the full interview, head to Palatinate’s YouTube channel
Prof. Antony Long, Durham’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, sat down for an interview with our Editors-in-Chief, Tash Mosheim and Tim Sigsworth, about the University’s newly announced Student Journey endeavour.
The project aims to build a better awareness of students’ experiences before, throughout and after their time at Durham in order to inform the University’s decision-making processes.
One of its principal aims is to recognise and build upon Durham’s pre-existing strengths and, undoubtedly, one of these is the collegiate system. When asked, Prof. Long made it clear that the University shares this view.
“An easy one to answer – it lies right at the heart of the University. This year has shown, perhaps more than ever, the huge importance of our colleges as places where our students come and enjoy and develop as young adults throughout their time at Durham.
“The colleges are absolutely essential: they have been, they will be,” he continued. “They are quite distinct from other universities and we are proud of that distinction. We are a proudly collegiate university.”
Prof. Long’s views in this regard are no doubt informed by the six years he spent at Durham for his B.A. and PhD, both of which were in the Geography Department, which he would also go on to head twice later in his career.
“My biggest claim to fame was as captain of my college rugby team. I had an unrivalled 100% record in all the games I captained: we lost every one of them, but we had fun doing it!”
While colleges do offer unrivalled opportunities for students to grow and enjoy themselves, issues of access and participation remain. The proportion of students at Durham who attended state schools decreased in 2019/20 for the third year in a row, and Palatinate has been at the forefront of investigating ongoing discrimination against working-class, northern and minority ethnic students.
“We have an access and participation plan which we have agreed with our regulator,” Prof. Long stressed when questioned about what the University is doing to make Durham more accessible for students from historically underrepresented groups. “It has in it targets for how we want to diversify our student body.
“We look at the ratio of ‘quintile one’ to ‘quintile five’ students. That basically means the number of students who come from areas of the country which are more and less likely to come to university.
“We’re trying to increase the number of students from areas of the country which are less likely to come to university, and we’re making significant improvements in the ratios between those two student groups.”
Yet ensuring broad access at Durham is about far more than just admissions. Just as the Student Journey project looks at the “life cycle” of a Durham student from application to alumni, accessibility for all requires effort at every stage of a student’s time at Durham.
When we asked Prof. Long what – in addition to admissions – needed to be changed to ensure all Durham students are made to feel welcome, it was the only time throughout the interview that he couldn’t answer immediately.
“A lot of that relates to our culture, what it means to be a student at Durham University and what you actually experience,” he said.
“We know, for example, that some students from the North East find Durham a difficult place to be because in some situations they can feel alienated from the student body.
“That shouldn’t be the case. We should be open and inclusive to students regardless of where they come from and particularly if they are from the North East.”
A major inhibiting factor for students from lower income backgrounds is the high cost of college and private accommodation in Durham, something which has been made clear by students continuing to pay for unoccupied private accommodation in recent months. This is not yet a concern of the Student Journey project, however.
“The work which we’re doing at the moment is part of a scoping phase. We’re trying to get at what our ‘as is’ model is and what we want our ‘to be’ model to be.
“What I expect that will do is identify a broad map of the Student Journey and a series of projects below that, one of which might well be student accommodation. It might be timetabling. It might be student welfare and support.
“We need to look at the mechanisms which we have to make sure they are fit for purpose for what our students need,” Prof. Long continued. “We are looking at the University through the eyes of students and that’s why your voices are going to be really crucial.”
Neither can students expect to receive refunds for tuition fees, in spite of the sub-standard learning experience which has come with online teaching.
“The Government has made it clear that the expectation is that the University will deliver against the learning outcomes for the degree programmes which students are registered on.
“We are absolutely committed to trying to do that in every possible way that we can.
“On tuition fees, no. That’s not the position of us, nor of the sector more broadly.”
Image: Professor Anthony Long