For much of this year, students at Durham – normally a quiet and studious lot – have been objecting to the university's plans to increase residence fees in the colleges. Marches and sit-ins have become almost regular events. One group of students held a "sleep-out" last term outside the Vice-Chancellor's house in protest and Sir Kenneth Calman, a former Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, was forced to squeeze out of a back exit to escape, according to protesters.
The university authorities cite an £8m repair and refurbishment bill as the reason for the fees increase, which will mean students having to pay £270 more a year on top of the £2,337 they pay now for food and a warm place to sleep. That will make Durham one of the most expensive universities in the North-east. And many first-years will still have to share 581 double bedrooms and unisex bathrooms.
My case illustrates what is happening. For the last academic year I paid £49 a week in rent (bills not included) in a shared five-bedroom house in Durham city, which was at the cheaper end of the market. Next year, living back in a residential college, which houses mostly freshers and finalists, I will pay £93.11 a week (including rent, three meals a day and use of college library and computing facilities). That is a rise of 11.6 per cent on last year's fees compared with an average national rise of 3.9 per cent.
According to the university, the rent rises are needed to pay for essential upgrading of bathrooms and to redecorate the college buildings. "It's normal maintenance," says a Durham university spokesman. "It's a matter of us catching up with a backlog of work, having made economies in the past."
But I believe these rises will eventually push students out of the colleges, making them merely halls of residence for freshers, depriving others of a unique system of welfare and social support. Like nearly everybody I know, I work during vacations to pay bills. I don't mind this. Most of us are resigned to getting loans, not grants. However, this year my politics tutor wants a draft of my dissertation by next term. I don't know when I'm going to write it. Do you know how pretentious it looks reading Nietzsche on the Tube?
The Durham college student representatives differ in opinion. Some are reluctant to block the rent rises next year in return for a greater participation in negotiations over rent increases. They regard the rises as inevitable. The majority of the colleges, however, distrust the university. Next term we will vote on whether to have a rent strike. The university says the potential strike is counter-productive but Gerry Steinberg, the local Labour MP, is supporting the students.
The publicity will not help Durham's attempt to attract more students from disadvantaged families in the North-east. Rent increases speak considerably louder than words. What they mean in effect is that a pink pashmina will fly from the flagpole of Durham Castle.
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