By Hugo Harris
For all the optimism associated with the start of an academic year, students at Durham’s Ustinov College will begin 2016/17 with a profound sense of trepidation.
It was confirmed last month that the University’s exclusively postgraduate college will be relocated from its current Howland’s Farm site to a new home at Sheraton Park, near Neville’s Cross, for the start of the 2018/19 academic year.
At a meeting on Tuesday 20 September, the University Council agreed to enter into a contract with the owners of the Sheraton Park Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) scheme.
Justifying their decision to authorise the move in a statement, the University Council drew attention to “two key priorities” of its developing Estates Strategy, citing the move of John Snow and Stephenson Colleges from Queen’s Campus to Durham City, and the planned growth in new student numbers in Durham City.
Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor and Warden of Durham University, stated: “In order to ensure a sustainable future for the University and to compete on a global scale, we need to build on our success and make changes where they are needed, including growing our student numbers in a carefully planned way.
“We are committed to working with staff, students, residents and other partners to ensure we deliver the best possible Strategy, which in turn delivers the best for our city and region.”
However, conciliatory words are unlikely to pass without criticism, despite the views of Durham Students’ Union and representatives from five of Durham University’s colleges being consulted at the September meeting.
Most Ustinov students have long opposed their college’s relocation, with one survey conducted by Ustinov’s Graduate Common Room (GCR) indicating that 86 percent of the college disagreed or strongly disagreed with the initial relocation proposals forwarded by Durham’s University Council.
A series of town halls meetings held over the summer, where students and the University’s Executive Committee (UEC) met to discuss Ustinov’s future, highlighted the considerable split of opinion between Durham’s postgraduate community and the University’s governing bodies.
Concerns were raised with regards to the actual buildings that will comprise the new Ustinov and over the processes involved with the college’s relocation.
Though the UEC argued that the 418 new high-quality study bedrooms built in closer proximity to the University would compensate for the 30% decrease in live-in accommodation at Ustinov, accusations were made by students that Ustinov was being “downgraded.”
The UEC was unable to specify what facilities currently available at Ustinov’s present site would be built at its new home.
Moreover, after the UEC was unable to share details of Ustinov’s relocation until July “for reasons of commercial sensitivity,” concerns were raised about the scope of the University’s consultation process.
At the time, Thom Addinall-Biddulph, Durham Students’ Union Liaison Officer for Ustinov GCR, told Palatinate that the GCR remained “deeply concerned” by the University’s proposals.
He said: “We were given very few clear answers and a number of patronising responses suggesting that we don’t understand the situation and that if we just use our imagination the new site can be everything we want it to be.
“We can’t imagine a bar and the other facilities we would lose at Sheraton Park, nor can we use our imagination to ignore the site’s problematic proximity to private residences.”
“As part of the development of our new University Strategy we are considering the best use of our current and future student accommodation,” Professor Corbridge said in a statement to Palatinate last week.
“In any decisions taken and changes made through the development of this Strategy, we are committed to maintaining an excellent student experience and to providing all possible support to our students.
“It is always our intention to share information and listen to feedback from students and staff at the earliest opportunity.
“We necessarily have to adhere to the University’s governance processes and on occasions respect the constraints of commercial confidentiality, but we are fully committed to more open and better communication with all members of the Durham University community.
“We know we can improve.”
The University Council, as part of its statement on its decision to enter into a contract with the owners of the PBSA scheme, has confirmed that “negotiations with the PBSA provider will be finalised and a Howland’s user group will be established to determine facilities requirements for the site.”
It is the University’s intention that a new site at Mount Oswald will open as new college accommodation in 2019/20, with either John Snow or Stephenson inhabiting the new space.
The final location of both colleges will be determined following further student consultation.
Photograph: Durham University