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Photo: Grace Tseng

Last Tuesday, 8th December, students at Durham held a funeral for accessible education. This was a direct response to the latest announcement of an increase college fees and international fees. With nearly 350 students in attendance, it is reported to have been the biggest student demonstration in Durham for over two decades. It built on a protest just weeks before, prior to recent announcement, which attracted almost 150 students demanding a freeze on college fees. Many in attendance at the ‘funeral’ were students who previously had no involvement with student activism.

The funeral procession assembled outside Durham Cathedral at 5 p.m. Mourners dressed in black and university gowns, carrying over 150 handmade candlelit lanterns, and following pallbearers carrying a large wooden coffin. The procession through the city was led by a Grim Reaper, and accompanied by a marching band. Students carried wilting flowers kindly donated by local florists, and ‘gravestones’ with personal messages, all of which were placed around the coffin where it was laid to rest near to the university administrative building. Here, students gave heartfelt eulogies, performed poetry and sang songs in memory of Accessible Education in Durham.

Durham has long maintained a reputation for its un-diverse, ‘politically apathetic’ student body. But decisions made by the university over the past few years have shaken Durham students out of our apathy. Following recent decisions taken by the university in the past few years to increase college fees and international fees, student outrage is quickly escalating.

Opposition to fee increases over the past few years, demanding a freeze on college fees, has been voiced by numerous student groups including the Durham Students Union (DSU) and college Junior Common Rooms. The 3.5% increase this year means that the university now charges over £7000 for 28 weeks of college accommodation – over £2000 more than the equivalent catered accommodation at the nearby universities of Newcastle and York.

Durham University point to the ‘unique college experience’, but many students have responded to this by highlighting the ‘uniquely’ poor conditions in which they live. £7000 per annum does not include ensuite, with groups of up to (and sometimes over) six students sharing a bathroom. Nor does it often include kitchen facilities. Stories of cold damp rooms, broken showers, broken radiators and even silverfish in bathrooms are frequent (I can personally attest for all of these). A high proportion of first years at Durham even share bedrooms in college. Although a small reduction in price is made for the latter, many would say it hardly makes up for the inconvenience.

College membership is compulsory, and almost all first year students live in college. To do otherwise can be very isolating, due to the nature of the collegiate structure. It would certainly make participation in and integration into Durham’s student life difficult. Yet increased college fees, along with the cutting of the Durham Grant over past years, will prevent poorer students from living in college. A recently launched petition demanding a freeze college fees already has over 1000 signatures, including outraged comments from numerous Durham alumni.

After years of international fees rising above inflation each year during the course of students’ degrees, pressure from the Durham Students Union and others last year secured a freeze on international fees from the point entry to the point of graduation. Unfortunately, a recent announcement from the university revealed they have decided instead to increase international fees by £2000 at the point of entry – a cynical move, which will hurt accessibility and diversity in the student body even further.

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The ‘funeral’ was organised by Trevelyan College Left Society (or Trevs Left), one of the many student activist groups that have sprung up in Durham over the past few years in response to the university administration. This action involved participation from many groups, including Durham Young Greens, and was supported by the Durham branch of Unite Community (the section of Unite for students and unemployed people). It attracted significant local and national press coverage, including the Huffington Post and the Guardian—the latter which linked the struggle for affordable housing in Durham with similar student campaigns in London and elsewhere in the UK.

In an unprecedented move, the Vice Chancellor then chose to acknowledge this action (not explicitly supported by the Durham Students’ Union) in an email sent to all students. Unfortunately, the proposals outlined in this email go nowhere near to offering a reduction and freeze in college and international fees.

Although welcoming the prospect of student consultation and increased bursary support, Trevs Left in our official response have emphasised that ‘improved bursarial support, although positive, is no substitute for a reduction and freeze in college fees’. We also stated our disappointment that the Vice Chancellor chose not to address the recent £2000 increase in international fees in his new proposals, despite our opposition to this being part of the motivation for our funeral action. ‘Our demands remain as follows: for a reversal of the recent increases in college and international fees (at point of entry), accompanied by a two year freeze in both cases.’ We also stated our ‘severe opposition’ to an additional proposal by the university to ‘offer more student choice via differential college fees’. We are ‘disappointed, especially given the current political climate (the recent Higher Education Green Paper), that in a situation concerning student accessibility, the university’s first response was to look to market solutions.’

Durham University student activists have become increasingly mobilised as part of the national student movement this term, opposing the increased marketisation of higher education generally, and particularly the Green Paper—which contains proposals a Guardian article stated would mean that ‘students will increasingly come to see themselves solely as economic individuals, and universities will be fighting even more ferociously for the competitive edge’, and a letter from a number of academics argued would ‘likely to lead to higher tuition fees for many, increased state intervention into the organisation and delivery of HE, more bureaucracy for staff and less autonomy for student unions’.

Supported by Unite Community, Trevs Left organised a coach to the national Free Education demo organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) in London on the 4th November, and last week the Durham Students Union voted to support a strike ballot. This is a significant departure from last year, where the Durham Students’ Union actually voted against supporting Free Education.

The political winds are changing at Durham University. Accessible education may be dead and buried (as is increasingly the case across the UK) but Trevs Left will continue to fight for a resurrection; for a more accessible, diverse, ethical, liberated and democratised university and higher education system. We have announced our intentions to escalate our campaign for a reduction of and freeze on college and international fees, including plans to hold Alternative Durham Open Days during the university open days. The university’s reputation will soon be at serious risk of harm. We hope they will listen to the demands, and not merely the concerns, of students, when making their next proposals on this issue.

About Jasmine Simms

Jasmine studies Education (English Studies) with Year Abroad at Durham University. She is secretary of Trevelyan College Left Society.