38-Week Lets: Big Mistake?

College accommodation may have benefits such as pretty views… but do students want a mandatory 38-week let?

The Easter vacation began as it has done for years in Durham, with the sighs of relief following dissertation and summative hand-ins and the University welcoming hundreds of excitable applicants for its residential Open Days. For some of these students Durham was their first choice, for others it was a random fifth pick, but after only 24 hours in the city all will have left knowing whether Durham was right for them. Any student who attended an Open Day will testify to the significance of spending a night with a bunch of crazed reps in colourful t-shirts and animal costumes in their decision to attend Durham University.

It came as a shock to many then when during the Easter Vacation the websites of Van Mildert, St Mary’s, Trevelyan and St Aidan’s Colleges suddenly began to advertise only 38 week let residence fees for the incoming freshers of 2011–12. Not only does this action risk the existence of residential Open Days in these colleges, as well as Collingwood and University colleges who are also subject to the change, it was taken despite the most avid student opposition. Five college JCRs (Hatfield, St Mary’s, Trevelyan, St Cuthbert’s Society, St John’s) had mandated to fight the decision, DSU President Sam Roseveare and Chair of the JCR President Committee Emily Warburton-Brown had in no uncertain terms expressed its undesirability, and DSU Postgraduate Officer Ian Williamson had sent a detailed email to Deputy Warden Graham Towl listing the numerous logistical problems. At every level of student representation and consultation the idea was opposed. At every level student opposition was ignored.

This £500 increase allows students to access their rooms during the holidays, an opportunity that some will no doubt appreciate. However, this opportunity was already available in the form of an optional extended let, an option that has only ever been taken by a select few students. For those students already struggling with accommodation fees that stretch far beyond the available maintenance loans and grants, and often even overdrafts, this was not an option they could afford but it is now one being enforced upon new students arriving in October. These students will be forced to pay 10% extra costs for accommodation at times they do not want to be here, and unless they have been checking their college’s website daily they will have no idea that they are suddenly expected to pay significantly more than their predecessors. At a time of national financial belt-tightening, students will be forced to turn to parents to support them even more with money that in many cases may be impossible to spare.

What will this extra money buy them? A room in a college that has been designed and fitted to be fully catered, therefore lacking in adequate cooking facilities with as of yet no guarantee that catering will be available to students during the holidays. A room at a university that cannot provide adequate pastoral care, as Senior Tutors, Chaplains and the counselling service are designed to work during term time only. In essence, students will be paying for services during times those services do not run.

In response to this move, the Facebook event “Durham University Students Against Enforced 38 Week Lets for Students” was created. Within three days it had attracted over 1,000 attending members. Members were encouraged to write to the Vice Chancellor and Deputy Warden in order to directly voice their opposition to the decision. Writers were informed by Professor Higgins that “all these issues have been thought through, and some revisited recently.” Specific concerns and issues with the decision were met with the suggestion to “take the issue up with your Head of College who is the responsible person and can give you more details”. When questioned on how the decision had been reached, the Vice Chancellor explained “38 week lets were recommended by the Colleges to the University executive, and their recommendations approved, last year. There was support from student representatives at the time, but of course we do need to understand why the views of the current cohort of students may differ.”

The argument that the decision was based on student support in previous years has come as a surprise to many third-year, fourth-year and postgraduate students who were present at the time. Kristina Hagen, Societies and Development Officer 2010–11 and previous Josephine Butler JCR President, told current JCR Presidents that “I can assure you that the rest of PresComm [Presidents Committee] and I were very much opposed to these being brought in.”

It is very easy to slip into cynicism. What appears to be nothing more than a policy to bulk out university coffers to the detriment of already over-burdened students has been imposed in the face of extensive student opposition, backed on the argument of student support from years past that is elusive at best, and utterly fallacious at worst.

However, Professor Higgins has been quick to respond to emails and will be explaining the University Executive Committee’s position in a forum this term. Will his arguments persuade students that it was right to ignore all student opposition to the policy? Will his arguments persuade students that it is fair to impose 38-week lets upon students who do not want them, at colleges which cannot provide catering facilities or the services they do during term time? Can he justify this extra charge for students whose families are feeling the pinch of recession, and for next year’s freshers who are looking down the barrel of over £27,000 of debt? One can only hope he can, but if he cannot there will be many frustrated students left seeking alternative avenues for their opposition to be heard.

Mr Aldred is the creator of the Facebook event Durham University Students Against Enforced 38 Week Lets for Students.

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