Ustinov College’s misguided move to Sheraton Park

By Mika Laiho

Two years ago, students were appalled with the University’s decision to relocate Ustinov College from the Howlands Farm site, near the Botanic Garden, to Sheraton Park in the Neville’s Cross area, without prior consultation with its student population.

This unsavoury act sparked outrage throughout Durham, especially among Ustinovians, who felt let down by the Vice-Chancellor. But what of the mystical ‘wheels of change’ – are they spinning looms of Doom & Gloom or Ye Olde Progresse?

Durham University was dealt favourable cards in the 19th Century – established by Parliamentary decree in 1832; granted the use of Durham Castle by Queen Victoria in 1937; and establishing St Hild’s for women in the 1850s as a reaction to new British attitudes about higher education for women.

In 1965 postgrads comprised a small proportion of the University population. 86 male and 8 female students founded the Graduate Society with the assistance of Professor William Payne Fisher who advocated for their status. When Ustinov college was established in 2005, its student body comprised two thirds of the University’s international population and was estimated to be twice the size of other graduate student bodies.

“Diversitate Valemus” (strength in diversity), coined by Ustinov’s first GCR President, Zu’bi Al-Zu’bi from Jordan, became the college motto on the basis of Durham’s ‘tribal’ collegiate system. When Zu’bi moved to Durham he discovered that Hatfield students were proud of belonging to the original college, whereas the Graduate Society was proud of being the most welcoming towards international students.

Historically, the Graduate Society has been diverse and welcoming

Ustinov comprised students of different races, cultures, and religious backgrounds, which made Ustinovians distinct from most other English academics. Unlike other Durham colleges, however, the Graduate Society’s living and study spaces were spread far and wide, between Fisher House in Old Elvet to Shincliffe Hall beyond Maiden Castle.

In 2004, the Ustinovian tribe predominantly comprised British students, with around 20% from China, and the rest from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Greece and the Middle East. Only a decade later, Ustinov proudly declared that it was the largest college in Durham with an estimated 1,700 postgraduate students from 100 nationalities, studying 100 subjects.

The Vice Chancellors’ new strategy for growth aims to boost University revenue by increasing the number of students from 17,500 to 21,500 students by 2027. Sally McGill, Chief Finance Officer, claims that around 50% of the University’s budget comes from tuition fees and other education contracts, which is why accommodation has become a major priority.

Hence jigging around Ustinov, Stephenson and John Snow colleges – plus, perhaps, another six colleges predicted to be introduced in Durham by 2027!

A former trustee of Ustinov’s GCR described the Sheraton Park development as a “fortunate expedient to the benefit of the University through, what seems to be, a bit of a solution to its short-term planning needs.”

The move to Sheraton was not made with students in mind

That sounded like a tongue-in-cheek way of saying the move to Sheraton Park is not something college students decided but rather an effect of the University’s unchecked ambition for growth.

Casting my mind back to 2015-16, I recall how several ups and downs ensued because of the Vice-Chancellor’s decision, particularly Howlands Farm where the general mood was dismally ominous. The irony of the ‘We shall not be moved!’ song performed by GCR reps was cringeworthy because Ustinov was destined to be moved, not for the first time, and probably not for the last!

Ustinov staff who voiced concerns said they were equally shocked at how little they knew about the University’s relocation plans, which ranged from not knowing whether college facilities would be available, to not knowing whether the Sheraton Park site would be ready on time for freshers.

Ustinov’s Sheraton move was not the first and definitely won’t be the last

Zu’bi told me, “When I came to Ustinov there was a crisis involving moving Ustinov to another location […] but at this time, Howlands Farm seemed like a shot at building something more permanent.” However, he continued, “it wasn’t long until the ‘Ustinov Mound’ was renamed ‘the Mound,’ after Josephine Butler’s student body moved in.”

Now the entire Howlands Farm site is intended as an undergraduate space, leaving many postgraduate students feeling like they are being evicted!

One fresher explained to me that although Ustinov’s identity is based on the premise of student ownership, any attempts to decorate Sheraton Park common room have been met with disdain by staff members who forbid residents to change anything (including Christmas decorations!) which is why she moved to Howlands Farm where “even if the bathroom is regularly overflowing, at least it feels homely.”

I hope that the Vice-Chancellor accepts responsibility for the way that the University disregarded a legacy of respect for Ustinov’s and Durham’s identity. I would like to know how long the present system of forced migration is intended to last and, while the paint is fresh at Sheraton, I would like to know whether we have a real opportunity to make it a success.

How long will this move last and what will it cost for Ustinov?

Photograph: Mika Laiho

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One Response

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  1. Katie Solsaj
    Mar 16, 2018 - 04:32 PM

    It is true, the taste of the move is still horrible. We should have never accepted to leave Howlands. We should have resisted more, the new comers will think Ustinov students are the least lucky students in Durham. We literally lost almost the only history we made. I wish the VC will be held accountable for what he have done.


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