University College’s allocation system causes frustration

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Students have described changes to University (Castle) College’s system for allocating rooms intheir college accommodation for returners as being “characterised” by “confusion”, “lack of clarity” and “frustration”.

Students hoping to live in Castle College next year were initially told on 23rd January that the traditional room ballot system was to be taken over by the Accommodation and Allocations Office (AAO) and replaced with a random selection method. By the end of the week, the College informed most returners, who had secured a room, that a ballot system would be reinstated.

A statement from Durham University on behalf of University College explained that “Rooms in colleges for returning students are limited. We have a fair and transparent process in place for allocation. This has not changed.

“For University College, returning students with medical needs are prioritised, followed by third and fourth-year finalists, non-finalist third years, second years and then students continuing from a home student Foundation programme. These criteria are unchanged from previous years.

“They were communicated to students, along with the likelihood of there being a waiting list. Issuing room licencesin a consolidated manner across the University ensures we can be consistent across all colleges

“Following feedback from students, within the priority list, students can now select their room, rather than rooms being allocated through random selection. Advice and guidance on seeking accommodation in Durham can be found at our online Housing Hub.”

“Rooms in colleges for returning students are limited. We have a fair and transparent process in place for allocation. This has not changed”

durham university spokesperson

Castle college students first received an email on 23 November 2023 asking them to register their interest in living in college in the 2024-5 academic year. They were told that the system used would be “by conducting a room ballot”.

This ballot system has long standing precedent in the college. Alongside students with a concession, or returning from a year abroad, students then participate in the ballot system based on their place on a priority list. Named at the top of the priority list are third- and fourth-year finalists, then, non-finalist third years, then second years, and finally first-year students (e.g. those continuing from a Foundation course). Students are ranked, and therefore choose a room, within this priority listnrandomly.

Students are aware, as in the initial email in November 2023, that “Please note, we cannot guarantee that we will secure you a place in college accommodation”. Students who had applied to live in college accommodation were informed on 23rd January 2023 that “There have been a few, significant changes in the allocation process and the central accommodation team (AAO) will now be issuing licence agreements on behalf of the University for all colleges.”

Students were informed that they would “receive one offer only” and that “all returner Licence Agreements no longer contain the Cancellation Clause.

“From 2024 entry, once a returner submits the Online Acceptance Form, they are liable for all terms and conditions of the Licence to Occupy University Accommodation, which includes the Early Termination Charge. The Early Termination Charge is 40% of the overall Licence Fee.”

Students were then provisionally informed later that week whether they had been given a room in this new system, or whether they were placed on the waiting list.

“A lot of frustration comes from the communication not being clear”

a second year castle student

Palatinate has spoken to students, who will be final years next year and had expected to therefore be first priority in the original balloting system, who were told they had not been given a room by the AAO.

A Castle college second year student, who will be a finalist next year and applied, alongside her friends, for returner accommodation, told Palatinate that although they “knew it was not a sure thing, it was collective knowledge […] that if you didn’t live in your second year, you will get accommodation somewhere” as they were in the first priority group.

Finding out that she is only on the waitlist for accommodation, it has been “tough” for her and her friends to now find a house in Durham for next year, as “the market is [now] very sparse.” This student was also told by Castle’s college office that she could not be given information regarding her position on the waiting list. “A lot of the frustration comes not from them changing the system but rather the frustration comes from the communication not being clear. Because if we had known sooner or with more detail, what the situation was, and how likely it would be for us to get housing, we could have made alternate plans or had a more realistic view of how things were going to go. But it’s like we’ve been blindsided by the big change.”

In what appears to be a change of course, some, but not all, of the students who were told that they would be receiving a room offer for next year were informed by email on Friday 26 January that they would now have “a provisional room choice”. An email to students explained that this change was made “in light of student and JCR feedback”.

A second year Castle student described the “communication” from the College and Accommodation Officer as “poor,” saying that there are “serious issues” with how the accommodation process has been run

Castle’s JCR Vice Senior Student, Rob Almqvist, has volunteered to help the college staff team with this allocation process and facilitate students being able to make a choice of what returner room they live in next year.

It is unclear why not all students have been given the opportunity to make a provisional room selection. This second year Castle student still has not been given a room and commented further that, “This whole ordeal has been characterized by confusion and lack of clarity”. Over the various emails sent by Castle college staff to students, the changes in room allocation system have been explained as being a result of “staffing changes, [and] change in central deadlines and process” and also that the College has “had a higher number of requests than available rooms.”

Another second year Castle college student, who has been given College accommodation this year, described the “communication” from the College and Accommodation Office as “poor”, saying that there are “serious issues” with how the accommodation process has been run. They also commented that the College could have “warned us when the form closed that it was oversubscribed – allowing people to find alternative arrangements” for housing.

This student said that students had heard nothing on room allocation since they had originally expressed interest in a ballot in November. This student also expressed concern with the reinstated room ballot system now being organised by the Vice Senior Student, who “appears to be given power that is not really appropriate for a JCR exec officer”.

Image: Beatrice Law

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