Click here for the analysis that accompanied this investigation in print.
Palatinate has obtained accounts from students who have experienced problems with mould, pests and water discolouration whilst living in college accommodation, with over a third of students experiencing at least one problem according to a Durham Polling survey.
The survey recorded 12 instances of mould, 6 of pests, 12 of water discolouration, 23 of broken appliances, and 15 of unclean facilities across different colleges. University College and Trevelyan College received the largest number of complaints, with seven members of each college experiencing at least one problem.
102 students from eleven colleges participated in the self- selecting survey, which members of all colleges were invited to participate in. 36 respondents said that they had experienced at least one problem with their college accommodation.
Students from University College, St Mary’s College, and St Cuthbert’s Society have recounted their experiences with mould and damp in college rooms in conversation with Palatinate.
A student who lived in University College’s Moatside Court accommodation last academic year (2020/2021) experienced a “horrific amount of mould” that infested their entire accommodation block.
“I genuinely feel unwell remembering the severity of it. The heating was turned down when spring came into bloom, along with the mould in the accommodation. I began coughing constantly and felt very unwell despite being Covid-19 negative. A pattern began to emerge: the more time I spent outside of my accommodation, the less frequently I had sickness bouts.”
“On moving out day, I discovered that my mattress protector and entire mattress were covered in mould. I wanted to vomit. I wasn’t alone and at least 20 other people in my accommodation had discovered the same nasty surprise. My next-door neighbour pressed the wall that we shared, and it literally bounced back with a quiet squelch.”
The student described the “whole place” as a “health hazard.” Those experiencing these problems, the student says, made “running jokes about it whilst ignoring the increasingly obvious health and safety concerns.”
They do not believe that the college were fully aware of the severity of the issue, explaining that porters were “horrified” upon discovering the “invasive” mould.
The student also explained that those living in Moatside Court would sometimes be without hot water for “days” and that fuses in the kitchenettes would often blow, leading to food spoilage: “Such events became monthly occurrences, traditions if you will.”
Another University College student, living in a partially underground part of the Castle last academic year, described similar experiences with a black mould infestation in their bed. They said, “I’m asthmatic and I’d have a cough I couldn’t shake […] when I spent long periods of time in my room. When I removed my mattress topper, I found […] black mould.”
Both students said that they had since become aware that the college disposed of and replaced a large number of mattresses after their cohort had moved out.
The second student recounted how a sewage pipe burst in the hallway outside their room, leaking “faeces and urine” all over the floor “We couldn’t use our showers or toilets for several days until it was fixed, and the stink was horrendous. College installed an automatic air freshener above the doorway to our hallway.”
The student praised college administrators, describing how they “sorted issues as they came up” and were “absolutely lovely.” They believe, however, that the college are limited in how well they can deal with problems by the central University: “Maybe instead of endlessly building new colleges [central management] should focus on improving and maintaining the ones that already exist.”
Another University College student said that the floor directly outside their room is “damp and cracked” because they live opposite the shower room and water often pools in the hallway outside.
The student said that, after reporting the problem twice, they were offered alternative accommodation in a different block. They say that they were told to return to their original room after a few weeks, but have not noticed “any difference” since returning.
One St Mary’s student recalled how a “good quarter of the wall” next to their bed was “green” with mould. The college gave the student a dehumidifier, which they said “did nothing” to help.
Two other St Mary’s students with mould in their rooms said that, whilst college “cleaned” and “wiped” the infested surfaces, neither felt that the underlying problems were adequately addressed. One said that they were informed that a “structural issue with the gutters” was to blame, but that they did not see this addressed. The other described being given only a “sheet with tips on how to avoid mould” as a solution, despite knowing of three cases of mould on their corridor.
A student from St Cuthbert’s Society said that there is mould in “multiple rooms and bathrooms” at the college’s Bailey site and claims that some people “got sick” from it.
“College came and bleached most of it and just told us to move any furniture away from the walls […] College understands and try to do everything quickly, but I think a lot of it is a problem with old buildings prone to these problems and not enough funding allocated to permanently fix them.”
The student added that several houses at the Bailey site are plagued by frequent hot water and heating outages, which can last “up to a few days”, meaning that students sometimes shower in other houses.
Accommodation charges for a standard uncatered college room with shared bathroom are rising to £5,811 for 39 weeks in the academic year 2022/2023. Catering prices are also rising from £2,394 this year to £2,490 next year.
When asked about value for money, the St Cuthbert’s Society student said that Durham college accommodation comes with a “false narrative of grandeur that sells at a high price” despite all its problems.
One student, who lived in Hatfield main site accommodation last year, recounted how their hot tap dispensed “dirty yellow water” for most of their time there. “Every time I ran hot water, it would intermittently spit out yellow and brown water between spurts of clear. I reported this, with a porter coming to check it out. They said it was because the boiler had an issue which had been fixed.”
The student reported the problem in Epiphany term but there was no improvement before they moved out of college. They said “I did not feel comfortable using the hot tap because I did not know if the water was safe… I never drank the water without filtering it first.”
Palatinate also learned of pest infestations in college accommodation, specifically at Hatfield College, St John’s College, Stephenson College, St Mary’s College.
A Hatfield student also living in main site accommodation experienced an “extremely annoying” infestation of ladybirds in their college room: “They would swarm me when I slept, and they are so loud when they fly that it would wake me up.”
The student said that the ladybirds found a way into the room even when windows were kept shut and described how they were difficult and unpleasant to kill, producing a “nasty smell.”
The student emphasised their “frustration”, having reported the issue to their college through official channels twice, saying that they never received a response.
Similarly, a St John’s student recalled “having to remove upwards of ten ladybirds a day” from around the window in their room.
The student reported the issue to their college, who sealed the gaps in the window. This only solved the problem “for a few days”, and after complaining again, the student was informed that pest control would not be sent out as the council did not consider ladybirds a pest. The student sealed the window with blu tack themselves, which largely solved the problem but left the window impossible to open.
A student from Stephenson College described feeling so “overwhelmed” by a fly infestation in their college room that they felt they had no choice but to return home during term time.
“There were already a lot of dead flies in my room when I arrived. It got worse, and there was a constant noise of buzzing.”
Upon reporting the issue, the student’s college said that pest control could not find a cause. When the student later complained again, they were offered a spare college room to stay in. They found this “frustrating” since the majority of their belongings were left in their old room, and so frequent trips back were necessary. The student was told that nothing could be done and that the issue would endure due to the forest next to Stephenson.
A St Mary’s student also complained of an “unpleasant” infestation of bugs in their room and bathroom facilities. They said that the college have “taken action to try and remove the bugs” but that the response was delayed at times.
Jeremy Cook, Pro-Vice- Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), told Palatinate: “We are investing £120m over a ten- year refurbishment programme to improve the quality of our college accommodation.”
He added that “We would encourage any student who observes a defect in the University estate to report this, to their college or department.”
Cook acknowledged that “costs of living, particularly energy and food, are rising rapidly,” though said that “increases in college fees for 2022/2023 [are] significantly lower than the Retail Price Index (RPI) rate of inflation.”
In fully catered colleges, he added that “fees also provide students with 21 hot meals a week – at a cost of £83 per week for this service for 2022/2023.”
For students in financial difficulty, Cook highlighted “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.”
Image: Thomas Tomlinson