“We need to do better”: Vice-Chancellor responds to allegations of a “toxic attitude” at Durham University

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In a letter published in The Guardian, Durham University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart Corbridge, responded to allegations of a “toxic attitude” towards Northern students at Durham University, highlighted in a report by Van Mildert student, Lauren White.

In the letter, Professor Stuart Corbridge admitted that “we need to do better” as a University. 

“Durham University believes everyone has the right to study and work in a respectful environment.”

Professor Stuart Corbridge, Durham University Vice-Chancellor

The letter also stated that “Durham University believes everyone has the right to study and work in a respectful environment. The vast majority of our community has a positive experience.

“The recent report by our Durham commission on respect, values and behaviour has established what it is like to work and study here, and identifies how we can create positive change. The recommendations of the report are being reviewed and implemented.

“We have a number of programmes to encourage students from the north-east of England to apply to Durham or other universities, including our Durham Inspired north-east scholarships and our Levelling Up: Aspire Higher programmes.

“We are also proud to be tackling the underrepresentation of women in the tech industry through our Women in Tech programme, championed by Professor Sue Black.

“Our responsibility to provide all students with an exceptional educational experience and transformed life chances is something to which my colleagues and I remain deeply committed.”

This comes after a report was published by Durham student, Lauren White, which alleges verbal and physical abuse against Northern students at Durham University. Testimonies from current and former Durham students included in the report show that Northern students at the University have been subject to mockery of their accents which have been described as “feral”, “dirty”, and “vulgar”.

The testimonies also show that Northern students have been made to feel unwelcome at the University, and in some cases, have felt forced to live at home during their studies or drop out of Durham.

The report asks that the University acknowledges that it has a “toxic culture” towards Northern students, and that ‘background’ is included as a type of discrimination in the student pledge, which every students is required to sign before they begin their studies at Durham.

:Too often Southern, typically privately educated, students move up to Durham and treat it and the residents here with disrespect bordering on contempt.”

Durham University Northern Society

It also calls on the University to take “re-educational action” to ensure that every student at Durham is aware that prejudice and discrimination against students due to their background is “unacceptable”, and to provide more support for the recpipients of the Supported Progression programme and Northern and working class students, and asks that these students are invited to give evidence and share their experiences. 

In a post on their Facebook page, Durham University Northern Society responded to the report, commenting: “The stories shared by Durham students from Northern backgrounds in the Palatinate and Guardian newspapers today are upsetting but unsurprising. Too often Southern, typically privately educated, students move up to Durham and treat it and the residents here with disrespect bordering on contempt. 

“The majority of Northern students at Durham, unlike their Southern counterparts, have not benefited from private education. The Northern students at Durham are here because of their own capabilities. Through their own hard graft, focus, and intelligence they have earned their place here. For anyone to look down their nose at their Northern peers for having the ability to succeed is pathetic.

“We at the Northern Society condemn in the strongest terms the actions of students who have mistreated Northerners here at Durham for nothing more than them being Northern. We recognise that the Northern students who have secured their studentships at Durham University have done so through the virtues of their own character and their own innate brilliance.”

“It is evident there is an inherently classist dialogue present within the Durham student culture”

Durham University Working Class Association

Durham University Working Class Association also commented, saying the report shows that “the reality of being a northern student at Durham University is one of classism and prejudice”, and called on Junior and Mature Common Rooms in colleges to install working-class representatives.

“Noted in the report are comments made to students which include the idea of ‘rolling in the muck’ with working-class students; it is evident there is an inherently classist dialogue present within the Durham student culture, which has often been trivialised, and must be tackled head-on. 

“We thank the university for their promise to look into these claims and hope they help to tackle them seriously, to make Durham a far more inclusive and accepting environment to northern and working class students.”

Since the report was published, the Vice-Chancellor and the Respect Report Chair have met with Lauren White, and agreed to implement a new Student Pledge which will include ‘background’ as a form of discrimination, and White’s report has been referred to the University’s Respect Oversight Committee.

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