Durham University is an elite institution with an affluent student body situated in one of the poorest regions of the UK. The University claims it seeks to have a positive impact on the surrounding area as a source of employment, income and innovation. But how true is this? Does Durham University practice what it preaches?
Student numbers have increased continuously in recent years and are set to increase even more dramatically under a new Academic Strategy. In addition, roughly 2,000 student places are going to be relocated to Durham city as the University’s Stockton campus is phased out.
The effect of rising student numbers has been to increase competition for houses in the city centre. Simultaneously, spiralling college rents have had a knock-on effect on rent levels charged by private landlords. Private rents have doubled in some neighbourhoods in recent years but still undercut the rents charged by the University to students who live in colleges.
The combined effect of rising student numbers and spiralling rents has been to drive permanent residents from the city centre, destroying community life in parts of Durham. Neighbourhoods that were mixed or residential 10-15yrs ago have become dominated by students, creating a further incentive for residents to move out. These neighbourhoods are now dead half the year outside of term times. Meanwhile, landlords are not interested in maintaining properties fit for long-term occupation and focus instead on making a ‘quick buck’ from overcrowded student lets.
Durham’s residents are overwhelmingly pleased to share their city with a vibrant student population. But decay of Durham’s housing stock combined with the loss of community life in much of the city centre has been a cause of resentment directed at the University.
Durham University runs frequent consultations with students and academic staff on major decisions, but the impact of these consultations on eventual policy is often unclear. During recent consultations on the University’s new Academic Strategy, the review of the University’s Stockton campus and the appointment of a new Vice-Chancellor (all within the past 2 years) student campaigners argued that the University’s current policy of increasing student numbers in the city centre and jacking-up college rents was hurting both students and residents. Not only did the University not listen, it also revealed that it would not consult with any local residents on these issues with major implications for life in the area, with one University official saying it “did not concern them”.
Not only are local residents external to the University excluded from its consultations – students and staff alike were shocked to learn in 2014 that non-academic staff, namely the University’s cleaners, porters and security workers, would not be consulted on the recruitment of the new Vice-Chancellor by the private agency hired by the University to carry out this process.
The University also seeks to build links with the wider region by extending preferential offers to pupils in certain local schools which can be a means of promoting accessibility of higher education in disadvantaged communities. However, head teachers discussing with student activists during previous open days have explained how many school leavers receive these preferential offers, want to accept them and get the grades, but have to turn them down because the high cost of college rents makes it impossible for them to study at Durham.
As long as Durham University continues to jack-up rents it is choosing to remain a University exclusively for the rich and affluent.
In 2012, Durham academic Pr Ray Hudson co-authored a report entitled ‘How can universities support disadvantaged communities?’ (available online). The report argued that by paying all employees a Living Wage, universities can have a tangible positive impact in surrounding communities. The Living Wage, currently defined by the Living Wage Foundation at £8.25/hr, is a wage rate higher than the minimum wage and is calculated as the minimum required for a worker to sustain themselves and their family in dignity. At the time, Durham University did not pay a Living Wage to roughly 500 of its employees. These employees were again overwhelmingly cleaners and security staff who are likely to be long-term residents in the region.
The Living Wage Campaign has operated in Durham for 5yrs, but the University has continuously resisted becoming a Living Wage employer, including during 2014-2015 when Pr Hudson was acting Vice-Chancellor. In contrast, new rotas and conditions now threaten to axe the hours and overtime and holiday pay of many of the low-paid workers concerned.
Durham University claims it is an asset to the region when promoting itself to outsiders. But in Durham, the sense that the University treats its local community with indifference or derision is acute. The toxic atmosphere this creates is bad for everyone: students, staff and local residents. Creating a more open and democratic University should involve both students and residents which would have an uplifting effect on our community of our beautiful city.