Rahs of Durham, picture the scene: you just splashed out £10,000 on a ski trip. The ski company promised you 10 days of the Swiss Alps. Then, they break the skis, and fail to buy replacements; your ten days turns to eight. Would your mother tolerate such a failure to deliver services paid for? Or, would her inner Karen be unleashed?
For those of us more, well, grounded, imagine you spent a fiver on cheesy chips from Paddy’s and they forgot the cheese…
In the 2021/22 Academic year alone, there have been 18 days of strike action, 13 during teaching time and five during the Easter break. This equates to 11.8% of the teaching days in Durham’s academic year. Financially speaking, this amounts to £1093.18 in tuition fees for Durham students paying the standard £9,250 in tuition. International students often pay more than triple that – I’ll let you do that eye-watering maths.
Earlier in the month, students orchestrated an open letter, calling on management to start listening to staff to improve our learning and teaching conditions. Signed by over 1130 students, the letter raised a number of concerns about the current working conditions at the University, including the recent revelation that Durham ranks 140 out of 161 in Higher Education gender pay gaps, with the mean hourly wage of women being a whopping 28.3% lower than men’s.
The Vice-Chancellor, Karen O’Brien’s, response somewhat missed the mark in addressing these concerns and instead adopted a self-congratulatory tone, outlining the competitiveness of the “wider benefits structure”.
In what is the equivalent of a stranger on the street asking you to thank them for not mugging you, the Vice-Chancellor also applauds management’s success in calling off a marking boycott, ensuring students would graduate last minute by finally listening to their staff (somewhat, anyway). Why we would want anything more than the bare minimum appears lost on them. Of course, though, we should fall to our knees and bow to the mighty managerial team for being our saviours and ensuring there won’t be any more disruption to teaching (until October anyway, when the plaster used to seal the machete wound will most likely disintegrate).
Though, broken clocks are often right at least twice a day. Professor O’Brien suggests that students who are dissatisfied with their courses should raise complaints about the issues they have experienced at Durham due to management’s failure to address the shoddy conditions they subject their staff to. I would agree.
In our marketised structure of education, students are ultimately customers. As the Government implemented austerity measures, they cut overall funding to UK Universities. This saw the tripling of tuition fees as universities started to self-fund and acted like businesses (even if there was no profit to be made). This hasn’t stopped universities from running off a surplus. Durham University operates on a £54 million surplus as of 2021.
You may then ask how you are missing teaching time and staff are being treated unfairly. If there is no financial hole, what is the justification? In short, none. The argument that the University simply cannot afford to pay staff and functionally run your degree is a bare-faced lie, and perhaps worse an attempt by management to gaslight us into being sympathetic towards the universities position, Professor Karen O’Brien has apparently been taking notes from Downing Street.
I would urge you not to take the bait. Students keep the university not just a float but in a massive surplus. The large intake of students, with more students per staff member than previously, means this is incredibly unlikely to change. Therefore, you have paid money to an institution that has not delivered the service. Taking Professor O’Brien’s advice, we must make our grievance known and work towards securing tuition fee rebates.
This is not anti-union. Many believe asking for tuition fee rebates undermines union activity. I think it does the exact opposite. Universities operate as businesses. Their choice to ignore the demands of staff is because it remains financially viable. If each time staff voted for industrial action, the university was forced to issue rebates, they would be caught in a fiscal catch- 22 and would be more inclined to act.
So, if the University can afford it, and there’s no damage to staff, what is stopping you? You can take Ms O’Brien’s advice by filling out the form. Those who signed the letter will receive email instructions on how to do so.
Image: Thomas Tomlinson