Rewards and Challenges of Being an International Student at Durham University

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For an international student, studying at Durham is an attractive prospect; very few of the country’s many universities can offer such a typical version of the English university experience, as it is perceived around the world. From ancient buildings to gowned formals, Durham provides much of what the rest of the world idealises about the UK. Durham is a wonderful historic town, and its many remarkable features do not get tiresome quickly. Even after three years here, I am still often struck by the beauty of the place. Last year, I would pause almost every day on my walk to lectures to look at the imposing view of the cathedral, framed by the rising sun.

Despite these undeniably appealing features, life as an international at Durham can be challenging as well. The University has a complicated relationship to international students, to say the least. Durham is far from one of the UK’s most diverse universities, but international (Non-EU) students still represent about 35% of the universities income from tuition, equalling £53 million, despite making up just under 22% of the undergraduate population. The University thus has an obvious financial incentive to recruit more international students. This financial drive has, however, also led them to institute enormously high international fees.

Durham University provides effectively no financial support for internationals, which tends to leave them in one of three situations; either they are wealthy enough to easily afford the high tuition fees, they receive support from an external body to pursue their studies (as I do), or they are spending a large portion of their personal finances on attending the University. It is this last group of students to whom Durham University shows little or no regard.

Up until last year, fees for international students increased by approximately £700 a year. International students were not alerted to this fact before accepting a place at the University, and many were ending up struggling to pay the extra £2000 pounds yearly by the end of their degrees. Under sustained pressure from the Students’ Union and international students, the University agreed last year to fix international fees, so that students would pay the same amount every year throughout their degree. They were, however, determined not to actually sacrifice any income by taking this step, and chose to raise fees for new entrants next year by a whopping £2000. This makes their promise to fix fees entirely hollow. Instead of raising fees by a set amount every year, they do it in one enormous increase for every incoming class of students.

By continuing to raise fees at this rate, Durham University is rapidly driving out this third category of self-funded students. Soon those lucky enough to have external funding will begin to suffer too, as most funding has a cap which the University fees are already exceeding, in many cases. The message is clear – Durham University values diversity and international students, but it would really rather they were of the ultra-wealthy variety. This highly exclusive version of diversity ties in well with the ideas of the current Conservative government of the UK, which recently introduced a requirement that all non-EU nationals working in the country must earn over £35,000 a year, or they will be deported. That is almost £10,000 higher than the average salary in the UK, and represents a clear attempt at economic segregation. This hostility to foreign nationals and emphasis on economic achievement above all else is one of the main reasons I am choosing not to stay in the UK after graduating.

In my time at Durham, I have met some truly wonderful people from both the UK and abroad. Judging by my friends alone, I can say with confidence that diversity at Durham is not yet dead. But if the University continues to act in the way it has been, then we will see an increasing homogenisation of the student body. This is why one of our demands for the Alternative Open Day is a reversal of the unreasonably high increase in international fees for the coming academic year. Durham is a beautiful city and an excellent university, and it is important that it be made accessible to all, not just a privileged few. Only by promoting economic accessibility can the University’s stated aim of increasing diversity be genuinely realised.

Lewis Picard is an international student at Durham University. If you have any questions for him, please feel free to get in touch at lewis.picard@durham.ac.uk.

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The True Cost of Accommodation Fees

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Durham University Executive Committee seems determined to close our institution’s doors on lower and mid-income students as they consistently commit to increase the price of living in college. College accommodation prices have risen by 20% in three years, now breaking the £7000 pound mark for a standard room. These prices are inexcusable.

Research by StuRents found that students at Durham are paying over 30% higher rent than our local counterparts. In 2015 the university blamed the rising cost of gas, electricity and food for an increase in fees, but as the Times Higher Education noted this justification is flawed; the measure of inflation which includes these items has been hovering around zero for all of 2015. The Pro Vice-Chancellor responsible for Colleges, Graham Towl, claimed that Durham students benefit from a college experience ‘at halls of residence prices’, despite repeated demonstrations that standard catered accommodation at nearby Newcastle and York is £2000 cheaper than Durham.

But the University’s flimsy justifications are only the beginning. An email sent to students which broke down college fee costs revealed that one third of our rent goes on ‘capital and borrowing expenditure’. A freedom of information request found that this includes hundreds of thousands pounds’ worth of investment in oil and fossil fuel companies, and significant amounts in military contractors and arms dealers. Money we believed to be spending on living costs is in fact going to dodgy investments we never asked to be involved in.

In the midst of growing student dissatisfaction surrounding this issue, Professor Stuart Corbridge took the job as the new Vice-Chancellor of the University. In an introductory meet-and-greet with students, he claimed that the university’s academic vision and wider strategy is geared towards diversity and accessibility. This claim simply does not stack up with the evidence. Escalating college fees serve to send the message that this university is a university for privileged students.

Furthermore, the prices the university set push up rent across the entire city. As the largest landlord in Durham, the university has a lot of weight to throw about. Following the university’s last rent hike, private rent rose by 5% in the city, causing knock-on effects in the local community. This institution has a responsibility to the local area, as well as its students, and in its search for profit it is shirking this responsibility with damaging rent prices.

The university claims that it is offsetting these rises with continued support for students, but it has actually quietly reduced the amount it offers in its grants per student. The Vice-Chancellor suggested that bursarial support for students coming from families earning the average UK wage and below could help to solve the problem of spiralling rent. In reality this would merely function to maintain the elitist standard set by the university because the average salary of £26.5k is much smaller than the household income of the average family around £40,000, which is the income which large amounts of struggling students would have their student finance assessed upon. The University only offered this pseudo-solution after criticism against the rising fees became widespread, even being reported in the Guardian. It has not, until the conversation surrounding rent in Durham and the rest of the UK has reached fever pitch, actually utilised the grant system to deal with escalating rents.

The University’s continued disregard of student action taken in opposition to these rises has demonstrated that it is not only committed to increasing college fees, but also that it has no respect for student opinion. It was only after students held a Funeral for Accessible Education, which gained significant attention from local and national press, that the university offered a focused and meaningful consultation with the Students’ Union and college representatives. We are forced to assume that either the university, as the largest landlord in the city, does not understand that the escalating price of college accommodation hurts current students, potential students, and local residents, or that they do not care.  Either is inexcusable.

Durham University is guilty of many things in this crisis. It is guilty of pricing poorer students out of the University, creating a culture of elitism, and pushing rents up in the city for all. It is guilty of claiming its rent prices are competitive, despite similar accommodation being offered for thousands of pounds less at universities in the local area. It is guilty of taking chunks of the rent and using them for unpopular and unethical investments. It is guilty of mismanaging student dissent and consultation. Durham University, if it is to present itself as a prestigious institution, needs to address the crisis it is creating in the city that houses it.

Introduction to the Alternative Open Days

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Why is this happening?

The Alternative Durham Open Days were created by a group of students after the university increased the college accommodation fees up to £7,353 for the 2016/2017 academic year, as well as increasing tuition fees for international students to £16,500 for non-laboratory subjects and £20,900 for laboratory-based subjects. This was despite multiple demonstrations from students at the university over recent years, including protests of over 100 people and a Funeral for Accessible Education that involved more than 300 people. Students have made their views clear through these actions and through the student union and college common rooms, but we have not been listened to. The Alternative Open Days are, therefore, an escalation on previous actions.

Our demands are that college accommodation and international fees be fixed at the level of this year (2015/16), with a further two year freeze on each.

Everyone involved with the Alternative Durham Open Days is enjoying their time at Durham. Our goal is not to discourage prospective students, but rather to offer insight into all areas of the student experience. Durham University must address the issues raised in this prospectus, in order to become a safer, fairer and accessible institution. 

What are the open days?

The Alternative Durham Open Days will run parallel to the official open days. Volunteer Alternative Ambassadors will be stationed around Durham on 27th June and 2nd July, armed with this alternative prospectus, refreshments, and lots of advice for prospective students. Our Ambassadors are available to discuss all aspects of the Durham student experience – positive and negative. We will also be hosting tours of student houses in Durham.

This site will also include a blog, with posts such as this one that speak about the issues that matter to us as students of this university. This will cover things such as international fees, the difficulties of obtaining good private student accommodation, and the sexual assault policy of the university, as well as more useful topics for prospective students such as how to budget and what to look for in a university.

If you would like to get involved or contact us, please use our contact page or send us a message on Facebook or Twitter.