“I want the University to actually act on students’ interests” – an interview with DSU Welfare and Liberation Officer Laura Curran

One of Durham Students’ Union’s sabbatical officers, Laura Curran, talked with Luke Alsford about the causes and solutions of Durham’s housing crisis and discussed the influence of the SU.


Luke Alsford: You have studied both your Bachelors and Masters here at Durham. Why did you want to stay another year as a sabbatical officer for Welfare and Liberation? 


Laura Curran: Having been in Durham for as long as I have, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in the wider student experience. In Collingwood JCR I was heavily involved with college welfare and I have been LGBTQ+ rep as well as Students’ Union rep. I gained a lot of knowledge in what students care about and what issues are important to them. Over the length of time I have been in Durham I encountered a plethora of issues that students have to go through, but I’ve seen a lot of really good things as well and students coming together. So, with the experience with the Students’ Union and in Collingwood I felt that running as Welfare as Liberation Officer was a really natural progression.


Laura Curran

LA: So what issues do you think students care most about? What issues are driving you and in your role?


LC: A stand out issue this year has been housing. As SU rep and being involved with welfare at Collingwood, I was involved in housing campaigns, which involved giving information to the students about the housing market and their rights and contracts, that sort of thing. As everyone has seen this year, the issue with housing just blew up in an enormous way. It’s an issue that students have raised with the University for years now. The SU recently put together all the collated times when the issue of housing was raised in University meetings, which dates back to 2016, before almost all students in Durham at the moment. We have seen the worst of it now first hand, with students queuing in the streets overnight. That should never had been a position that anyone should have to be in. And that was down to a lack of confidence in the student body that they could actually get a house. That sentence itself is ridiculous to say out loud!



LA: How has the housing situation in Durham become such a mess and how can it be resolved so that it’s not a one next year?


LC: There are a lot of aspects that play into how this situation has come about. One in particular is how many students there are in Durham. In 2020 and 2021, the university had to take in more people due to Government policy that the University had to honor all offers made that potential students met. And this year’s intake was not low enough to account for the previous two years – the University are not allowing for a dip. There is now a massive block of confidence, that there are not enough houses in Durham. Another issue is the behaviour of landlords and estate agents in general and the amount that they are charging. A lot of houses available were costing £200 per week, if not more, which is an extortionate amount. The average maintenance loan leaves students with around £120 per person per week for their studies, and many student houses can cost nearly double that, it’s putting the burden on students to make up the money. Not a lot of students have the option to be topped up by their family and so have to take up part time jobs often, even having close to full time hours, just to sustain their studies.



LA: Do you really get a sense in your role if the housing market is having a tangible impact on students?


LC: Yeah it has a huge impact on students. A lot of students have come forward saying that the housing crisis has had a really negative impact on their studies. I went to see the queues outside the estate agents, when it was at its peak, and there was a group of students who said that they had emailed their seminar leader to tell them they could not make their contact hour because they had to go sign for a house. The response that they got was, “Well, that’s your decision.” There wasn’t really any sort of accommodation within department side of things to account for the fact that people are trying to find somewhere to live. There have also been many students saying they were missing lectures and degree work just refreshing web pages and trying to find somewhere to live. All of this is having a detrimental impact on the mental health of students as well. The memory and experience that people have of sleeping in the cold on the streets is shocking, and that is not something students are going to forget anytime soon. People have been confronted with either signing somewhere to live which is too expensive for them, or not signing at all. So, there is stress and worry and fear within students about how they will possible finance the house they’ve signed. Everything was moving so fast in the housing market as well, there was a lot of stress finding people to live with, and many students are often left feeling they have no one to sign with.



LA: One of the SU’s demands for the University was that they take responsibility for the housing crisis. Are they going to take responsibility for housing crisis? Is change going to happen?


LC: Yeah so what we ideally wanted to see from Durham University was that they publicly admit that they have had a role in how the housing market has turned out, because it is a fact that they have. The University is the biggest landlord in Durham, in terms of student accommodation. The University has done nothing to take responsibility or acknowledge their role. The University are trying to do more work in finding out the capacity of the city, as in how many beds there are, and also looking at admissions rates for years going forward. At the moment, the University’s efforts do not feel too connected with each other. They have already set the target for the total amount of students for the next academic year, and the targets are set to be lower than what the current rate is now, but it’s not based on the true capacity of the city, because the university doesn’t know that number yet because they haven’t done the research. So, what is an obvious connection in the minds of students has not really translated to University action just yet. It is on the University’s radar more than ever and they are taking some steps to make sure the problem with student numbers does not happen again, but the action is pretty slow. From conversations that we have had with them as well, the University are emphasising the actions of Durham County Council, which is fair enough as the County Council has not really been involved dealing with housing crisis issues. But the University are also almost deflecting the blame by emphasising the County Council in discussions. The University needs to take responsibility for what it is doing as well as calling for other groups to take responsibility.



LA: The Students’ Union itself does take some criticism for being inactive and not having as large as a presence as it could have. Do you think that is a fair representation? How can the SU improve their image? 


LC: I think there is criticism and that is fair, and as someone who was a Students’ Union Rep for Collingwood and therefore been on the student side, I’ve also held that opinion before. Being on the other side of it now I can see, for example, that there are meetings with the University which are confidential and we can’t speak on. So, there are things which are happening that we are not able to report on. That point aside, there has always been an issue with communications side of the SU. It still is an issue as we hear students asking, “What is the SU doing on housing?” even after we released a statement on the housing crisis and what we want the University to do about it. We need to improve the communication to students of what we are doing. That is something I try to do with my social media, I post monthly updates and I offer drop-ins. I feel that I am very active on social media and people do reach out on issues, I am doing what I can. We are doing a lot of lobbying of the University to bring about change, but it does take a lot of time for changes take place because of how Durham is.


Read part two here


Featured Image: Laura Curran

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