By Elizabeth McBride and Waseem Mohamed
While the cost of living and Durham’s accommodation prices have risen steadily over the past ten years, the University’s main financial support programme has reduced in value.
In 2012/2013 the Durham Grant paid for 35% of the rent of a standard catered room for a year, but for 2021/2022 it fell to 20% of the annual rent of a standard catered room.
The University generally raises accommodation prices in accordance with RPI (the Retail Price Index), apart from the year 2022-23 in which the rise is significantly lower than RPI. However, this is not the case for the Durham Grant scheme. The financial eligibility for the maximum award – a combined household income of under £25,000 – has also not changed in the last decade despite inflation.
In 2017/2018 Durham capped the total financial support a student can receive to £2000. This made the Grant redundant for students who are already receiving a bursary under the Supported Progression scheme, which seeks to work with underrepresented groups to encourage them to apply to Durham and other universities.
Durham has recently announced that it will undertake a “review” of the money awarded by the Durham Grant scheme in response to concerns from Durham’s Students’ Union about rising accommodation costs.
Declan Merrington, Durham Students’ Union Postgraduate Academic Officer, expressed worry over rising costs after accommodation prices rose again earlier this year stating: “I was lucky enough to have received a generous bursary which took the form of money off my accommodation in my first year. The next year after my cohort’s Supported Progression bursary was cut. (…) If it weren’t for the bursary I would not have been at Durham.”
He continued to explain that “being unable to participate in college because of the high costs would have undermined the whole point of choosing Durham specifically.”
In addition, the Student Support Fund scheme – which offers financial help to students who unexpectedly find themselves in hardship – has been branded “tedious and embarassing” by Durham’s Working Class Students’ Association (WCSA), who have questioned how clearly the scheme is signposted to students.
In terms of applicants, the 2019/2020 academic year saw the highest number of applications to the SSF at 163 students, while the 2020/2021 year saw the lowest number at 101.
However, in 2020/2021 the scheme was significantly reduced due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This caused the majority of students to return home and the establishment of a temporary Covid-19 recovery fund to specifically support students placed under financial hardship because of the pandemic. 400 students received grants worth £500 and 43 graduates were given £1,000 for career development.
A representative of Durham’s WCSA stated that “the best course of action would be for colleges in freshers’ week to be really pushing the SSF and destigmatising the conversation regarding students needing financial help.”
A Durham University spokesperson told Palatinate: “We acknowledge that costs of living, particularly energy and food, are rising rapidly, but we have kept increases in college fees for 2022/2023 significantly lower than the Retail Price Index (RPI) rate of inflation.
“In the case of fully catered colleges, fees also provide students with 21 hot meals a week – at a cost of £83 per week for this service for 2022/2023.
“If students are experiencing financial difficulties, they can access a number of support systems.
“These include the Durham Grant, which is available to home undergraduates from low-income families, and an accommodation bursary available to first-year students from low-income families.”
Clarification: This article previously stated that “the University raises accommodation prices in accordance with RPI (the Retail Price Index), it has been amended to reflect the fact that next year’s increase is significantly below RPI.
Image – Thomas Tomlinson