In an interview with the Palatinate, published 28th January, the Vice Chancellor answered questions from students on a number of issues. One of these was college accommodation fees. His answer here is the beginning of what is due to be a long period of consultation with the student body, through the DSU and JCRs, around the issue of accommodation fees (you will notice I use the word ‘around’ here, which is important). Therefore, it is very important we take notice and understand his response in this interview. But what does it actually mean?
First, a quick reminder of what the issue is, and why student groups are mobilising on it. After raising college fees consistently above inflation for years, the university has raised accommodation fees this year by 3.5% (inflation is at 2%). This means that the university now charges over £7000 for 28 weeks accommodation (that’s £250 per week!) – over £2000 more than the equivalent (catered) accommodation at the nearby universities of York and Newcastle. Meanwhile, the Durham Grant for students from lower income backgrounds has been reduced, and maintenance grants have been cut nationally. Many feels this hurts accessibility and diversity at our university, and thus, the Freeze the Fees campaign emerged.
In his response to the Palatinate, the Vice Chancellor was quick to emphasise how keen he is “to remain an open university, but the quid pro is going to be that everyone has to engage in these difficult conversations”. On the surface, these appeals to “engagement” and “consultation” seem very reasonable. As students and/or activists, should we not be willing to discuss our demands and concerns, to hear the other side? Of course we should. In response to a question on “what he thought about pressure groups such as Trevs Left, however, the Vice Chancellor “directed us back to the question of divestment”. Using the example of student activist group People and Planet, who campaign for divestment, he seems at pains to demonstrate the workings of his “quid pro”: through passing motions in favour of the JCRs, People and Planet prove that they represented “the authentic student voice” in their demands. In return, the Vice Chancellor has taken their divestment motion to the University Executive Committee.
The Vice Chancellor’s strategy here – likely to be emblematic of his strategy going forward – is clever and may appear reasonable. However, there are two aspects to his argument which, although subtle, render his entire argument disingenuous and unhelpful. The first is to be found in his comparison between Trevs Left and People and Planet. His implication, by emphasising (in response to a question about Trevs Left) that People and Planet were able to demonstrate democratically that their demands represented the “authentic voice of students”, is that Trevs Left has somehow not done. Yet Trevs Left, Durham Students for University Reform, and all the other student groups working together on the Freeze the Fees campaign (all making the same demands) have gone through all the same processes as People and Planet. They have passed motions through numerous JCRs, through the DSU assembly, and started an online petition which in the space of just a week gathered over 1000 signatures. Their peaceful direct actions last term also gathered large numbers, at one point over 350 students. This is said to be a higher turnout than Durham University has seen at any student protest in at least fourteen years, possibly decades! Surely, in a university renowned for being “apolitical”, which already has a very low participation rate in its student union, nothing says “authentic student voice” like hundreds of students donning suits and gowns, carrying homemade lanterns and processing through Durham at 5pm in the freezing December weather?
This brings me to the other hugely evasive aspect of the Vice Chancellor’s response, which is his use of the expression “engagement”. There is an implication in his response that pressure groups such as Trevs Left in Durham are somehow unwilling to engage with the Vice Chancellor or formal democratic processes, on the issue of accommodation fees. This is simply untrue, as I have shown already. Trevs Left also wrote in our statement, in response to the Vice Chancellor’s proposals in wake of the Funeral for Accessible Education, that “we welcome to prospect of further consultation with the wider student body”. The first of these will apparently be the Accommodation Fees Consultation Sessions, hosted by the DSU, the first of which is on Tuesday 2nd February at 6pm. Trevs Left will be there and you should definitely go to.
But here’s the thing: engagement goes both ways, and none of the Vice Chancellor’s response so far counts as “engagement”. The demands of the Freeze the Fees campaign on accommodation fees are quite clear: the reversal of this year’s increases, and a two year freeze. In his proposals so far the Vice Chancellor has not engaged with this demand. Rather, he has danced around it, with proposals including increasing the availability of bursarial support slightly, and introducing (more) differentiated fees (a terrible idea). For an analysis of these proposals, I strongly recommend you read the Trevs Left statement issued 14th December. However, none of this counts as engagement with the actual demands of the Freeze the Fees campaign. To make use of the comparison the Vice Chancellor has already established, it is like if the Vice Chancellor were to invite People and Planet (who campaign on divestment) to instead consider proposals to reduce the university’s carbon emissions. Yes, the issues are related. Yes, actions to improve the University’s relatively (compared with other universities) poor bursarial support would be a good thing, just as a reduction in carbon omissions would obviously be. But there is a reason People and Planet are campaigning for divestment specifically, and attempts to appease them with offers of related but different (and less substantial) proposals would not reasonably be considered “engagement” with their demands. Nor should the Vice Chancellor’s current response to the Freeze the Fees campaign.
In conclusion, the Vice Chancellor’s implication that the student pressure groups currently mobilising on the Freeze the Fees campaign are not engaging themselves in the democratic processes of student representation, or are not interested in consultation, is entirely false. The demands to freeze and lower accommodation fees can clearly be seen as representing the ‘authentic student voice’, in this sense, with motions having been passed through both JCRs and the DSU. Conversely, his own actions so far do not qualify as “engagement” with the Freeze the Fees campaign, because none of his proposals address its actual demands. As a consequence, in order to bring the university under greater pressure, groups such as Trevs Left have direct actions planned to bring the university under increasing pressure, but these need not take place if the Vice Chancellor will go back to the drawing board and come up with proposals which address the demands of the campaign specifically. This is the “engagement” we expect of our university. I ask you, is that really so unreasonable?