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.

The Alternate Prospectus

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The Alternative Durham Open Days will run alongside the official Durham University Summer Open Days, on 27th June and 2nd July. They are being organised by a coalition of student groups, associations and societies, alongside TU branch Durham Unite Community and other local grassroots activists. The demands of this action are that both college accommodation fees and international fees be fixed at the level of this year (2015/16), followed by a two year freeze on each.

  • An online Alternative Durham Prospectus has been launched, including endorsements from notable Durham alumni. It highlights issues such as:
  • High college accommodation fees and international fees and their detrimental effects on accessibility, diversity and local communities
  • Issues of student safety
  • The University’s poor sexual assault policy
  • The University’s refusal to pay all its staff a living wage
  • The University’s investment in fossil fuel companies and arms manufacturers

This action builds on years of escalating student protest at Durham, including opposition to the fee hikes from the Student Union and college representatives. Durham students’ ‘Funeral for Accessible Education’ in November gained national media attention, and involved over 300 students.

Organisers have been clear that this action is a last resort. Should the University meet these demands, the Alternative Open Days will not go ahead. They are also keen to emphasise that their goal is not to actively discourage potential students from applying.

You can read the prospectus here:

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.

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.