Students grill Vice Chancellor at consultation event

The following is an article provided by Palatinate.

In an open consultation on 10th November, students had the opportunity to meet Durham’s new Vice Chancellor, Professor Stuart Corbridge, and address him with their questions and concerns.

In his introductory speech, the Vice Chancellor announced that the University was in the process of developing a new acadeSCofficialsmallwebmic strategy that will be implemented by March. The strategy, he said, will focus on several key areas. These areas include the relationship between Queens Campus Stockton and the Durham City Campus, the scale and resources of the Science site, and equality and diversity within the University.

He said that the University would be setting clear goals to be “world class in research, and world class in education”.

Several issues and concerns were raised by students. The biggest issue of concern appeared to be the exponential rise in college accommodation costs in recent years, expected to rise again for the next academic year. Several students emphasised the University’s accountability on this.

Two students noted that the University’s commitment to “diversity and equality” was somewhat compromised by the rise in college maintenance costs which have inflated by over 20% in the past three years.

Students wanted to know how the University could account for and justify these rises. Particularly, as one student noted, in the same time that this inflation has taken place, maintenance loans have stayed at the same level, while the Durham Grant has actually reduced.

The Chancellor stressed that the University remained committed to a policy of diversity and equality, but it did have to set rents in light of the fact that Durham offers a “different” kind of university experience than other British universities.

The University did, he stressed, want to make sure that students are not being “frozen out” and he promised “robust consultation” around the accommodation issue.

Divestment was another issue raised, noting the wealth of student support for action, now that several college JCRs have passed, or are in the process of passing, motions in favour of this.

The Chancellor emphasised the role of this student support. “If as much student support as is likely is shown, the issue will be taken to a consultation next term, then to Senate and to Council”.

Palatinate asked Professor Corbridge what further steps the University would be taking to improve how it deals with sexual violence, in light of the recent criticism from student groups on its current policy.

The Vice Chancellor commended the work of the University Sexual Violence Task Force so far, and said that the University Executive Committee would be getting an update on their work shortly. He was “keen to see Durham leading on this issue.”

Other issues which came up during the consultation included whether the needs of postgraduate students were being catered for as well as undergraduates, particular within the collegiate system.

Attention was also given to the issue of whether colleges should remain able to choose applicants or if the system would become fully randomised, to which the Vice Chancellor said there was no current proposal to initiate change at this time.

A final point made by one student speaking on behalf of Trevelyan College Executive Committee, was a criticism of the communication links between the University Executive Committee and the student body, noting that the ‘Meet the Vice Chancellor’ consultation event itself had not been very well advertised.

Speaking to Palatinate after the consultation, Harry Cross, co-chair of Durham Students for University Reform (DUSR) said it was “encouraging” that the Vice-Chancellor was willing to meet directly with students to discuss the University’s long-term strategic vision.

“However,” he said, “[the Vice-Chancellor] was unable to give specific answers to several of the questions students raised, notably regarding college rents.

“I appreciate the Vice-Chancellor’s willingness to consult further with students on this issue. However, students have long made their grievances officially known and it is time for concrete commitments from the University.

“Student societies have made it clear to the Vice Chancellor through an open letter what their priorities are on campus in the immediate future. The University knows what issues matter to its staff and students – it should address those issues openly.”

The issue of the University not paying many of its staff the living wage was not raised at the consultation.

Photograph: Durham University