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.