Students Protest College Fees – Again!

On Monday in the early afternoon, a collection of undergrad and postgrad students assembled outside the Bill Bryson Library to continue their campaign for accessible education.

Fronted by Durham Left Activists, the protest took place after Durham University’s continued refusal to fully address the concerns of escalating accommodation and international fees. Armed with banners and a trusty megaphone, the students made their voices heard through a series of chants, proceeding through the Palatine Centre to directly engage the attention of the university staff.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the action came not from the chorus of angry voices, however, but rather the power and passion of the isolated few. Delivered both outside the Bill Bryson and inside the Palatine Centre, members of the protest and the Student Union gave speeches which hammered home the true injustices of the university’s actions.

They touched on the university’s 20% rise in accommodation fees over the past three years – seeing the average college room rise over £7000, potentially barring students from lower income backgrounds – but also other effects and issues of equal importance. The soaring college prices go hand in hand with the private rent sector, meaning the local residents of Durham are increasingly pushed out of their own town centre and surrounding areas due to extortionately high housing prices. The university fails to pay all their staff a living wage, yet continually invests in artwork and fossil fuel companies. In many cases college rooms are simply just substandard, with infestations, collapsing ceilings and as many as twelve people to one shower.

As the protest drew to a close, it was clear that the students of Durham were not content to settle for the condescension and mediocrity of the university’s prior responses. They did not call for compromise, but instead would accept nothing less than their goal of a more equality-driven and fairer institution. Looking on to the Alternative Open Days, the protest served as a not-so-quiet reminder that students were not only still furious, but planned to do something about it.

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University Responses to Consultation: Statement

The team behind the Alternative Durham Open Days strongly condemns the University’s responses to a student survey conducted by Durham Students’ Union. The responses can be found here.

Despite concerted student pressure led by Durham Left Activists and the dialogue undertaken by the DSU, the University still refuses to respond to concerns surrounding the upcoming 3.5% rise in College fees for the next academic year. The rise will mean that most students will pay around or above £7,000 a year to live in College. We demand that College fees are frozen at their present level for the next two academic years.

As well as being disappointed at the University refusing to consider the prospect of freezing College fees for the next two years, we also have a number of concerns about the details of the responses.

Firstly, the university suggests it is looking to increase the amount of financial support available to disadvantaged students. Whilst any increase in financial support is welcome, the Vice-Chancellor, in response to the Funeral For Accessible Education in December, suggested that any increase would only apply to students with a household income of below £26,500. However, this is less than the national average income for one person, so significant numbers of students facing difficulties in paying College accommodation charges will not be helped by the extra funding. We believe a freeze in accommodation cost for all students at 2015/16 prices for two years is the only way of ensuring that all students can afford to live in College.

Additionally, in a response to a suggestion that the University’s pricing strategy is putting up rents in Durham City, the University asserts that ‘supply and demand in the private sector will play a role in determining rent levels in Durham City’. However, the University is the largest landlord in Durham, and so plays a significant role in determining the price levels of private rented accommodation in Durham City. The University’s refusal to admit to its role in pushing up the cost of housing for all students is highly unsatisfactory.

The University goes on to argue that ‘We think the model of consultation trialed this year is a step in the right direction.’ However, we query this. How can a consultation that shows the deep-seated anger of students, both in elected and non-elected roles, which fails to see anything be done about the spiraling cost of College accommodation be ‘a step in the right direction’?

The document shows in full the University’s attitude to its student body. Rather than listen to their legitimate concerns, it ignores them, and leaves hundreds of current and prospective students facing the prospect of being unable to live in College.

This is unacceptable. The Alternative Durham Open Days are a response to the unwillingness of the University to listen to its students. They are an action of last resort, not designed to discourage potential students from applying, but to show the depth of feeling on this issue and on the other issues at this university, which you can read in our Alternative Prospectus.

If you’d like to help us in doing this, please sign up to be an Alternative Open Day Ambassador  or contact us here.

Durham University: A Fantastic Record of Access – Soon To Be Made Even Better

Durham University. An institution renowned for its inclusivity. I am sure you are aware of the reputation we pride ourselves on. And just look around you. You’ll see students from all walks of life – households earning £100,000, households earning £90,000, sometimes households earning even £80,000! Yes, we here at Durham pride ourselves on our incredible access record. With over 40% of our population coming from just private school, and fifth in the country for such, we think we are exceeding the conditions to improve access put to us when we raised our tuition fees to £9000 in 2010.
And things are about to get a whole lot better!
The University has just held a full consultation(!) with its student body, and after much deliberation, have decided to raise accommodation fees to just £7000. How generous are we? This should be fine for students on the low-incomes of £80,000!
And just look at our decimation of the Durham Grant! It used to be £3000, with £2000 for the next tier income; now that latter tier is completely gone, and we’ve decreased the £30000 grant by a £1000! This shouldn’t have any mitigating problems in the future, especially not with the government completely abolishing the maintenance grant that was the bloodline of the poorest students in Britain. And fear not! We were going to decrease it even more! But, at the last minute, our generosity kicked in. Your £2000 is safe, Oliver Twist!
We’ve also made it clear that we would happily exploit the uncapping of fees in the last Budget, meaning we can raise even more in tuition fees. And this time, there’s not even any conditions on improving access to do so.
And what will all this extra revenue go to? Sorry, what was that, grants? No, silly. It will go to that immaculate art exhibition in the Palatine Centre. Shiny, huh? Our students love it!
With all these great reforms, we sure look forward to more participation from the poorest in society! So come along to Durham. The 125th most inclusive University in the country!


Unfortunately, almost an entire page could be made into a parody, trying to laugh off this University’s woeful record with disadvantaged students, and its continued support for policies that will only further shame it – and it believes it will never have to be held accountable. Not anymore. The great people behind this prospectus, and the various groups working with them, are demanding change. If you read this and feel yourself seething with the same anger we do, question it, and question them. Question if this is the inclusive learning environment it is painted to be. Question what they are selling you.

Durham University Labour Club are working alongside others to do just that, and we are demanding change with a plan for action.
We are demanding, among other things:
• A target for a 70:30 ratio of state/private school students
• Demanding transparency over accommodation fees
• The full restoration of the Durham Grant
• Rejecting future tuition fee increases
• Regular consultations with low-income students

None of these things should be hard. This University continues to wield plenty of cash, certainly enough to pay the Vice Chancellor the third highest wage in the country.

The situation in Durham is no joke. We have to demand they take this seriously.

The Durham Divest Campaign

Divestment: The removal of stocks, bonds or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.

People and Planet is currently running the Durham Divest campaign. Why? Durham University currently has £1.5 million invested in fossil fuel companies. Global temperatures are rising, and will soon surpass the 2°C level, which equates to catastrophic climate change. In order to prevent this, we need to keep 80% of our known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Fossil fuel companies are largely ignoring this target.

We, as a progressive, forward thinking university body, need to help stop this from happening. Desmond Tutu – no less – has said that “people of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.” By divesting we are breaking our ties with the industry, proving that we do not think what they are doing is morally acceptable.

This is a global movement – with more than 220 institutions divesting in one form or another. In the UK, this includes universities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oxford, Warwick and Sheffield. By following the trend, we can really make a difference. Like Durham, these universities have fossil-fuel-sponsored courses (Warwick, for example,has the BP Archive on campus as well as multi million pound research projects with BP and Shell) which have been untouched following the divestment movement. A 2013 study by the Aperio Group said economic risks of divesting from fossil fuel companies in the Russell 3000 Index are ‘statistically irrelevant’. Similarly for Durham, there won’t be any financial hardship for the university as a result of divesting. This really is a no-brainer for the university.

Durham University and Durham City

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.

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.

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.