GCR Letter to University Council

To the members of University Council,

We are writing to you on behalf of the Ustinov College Graduate Common Room (GCR). It has now been more than a decade since the Graduate Society found permanent residence at Howlands Farm and, in the process, became not just a college but a home for postgraduate students throughout Durham University.

As a community of artists, musicians, scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs and so much more, we were attracted from all corners of the world to study here at this prestigious university. Ustinov College represents something special to us. As this college has taken root in Howlands Farm, we have made it into our own. Our identity is weaved into this site: Fisher House (named after the founding principal of the Graduate Society) has been the social hub of the college since its completion, it now contains Memorials to Ustinovians who have passed away during their studies not only in Fisher House, but also on the Howlands property. The very mound that overlooks Howlands Farm is stamped with the name “USTINOV” every summer when we celebrate another year’s passing and is considered to be an iconic structure for Ustinovians living on and off the site. The GCR have provided funding for many of the facilities which currently exist at the Howlands site.

Durham University’s Vision 2027 reads that this academic institution values (5.) “(…)  a strong sense of community and heritage.” 1 These are qualities which have grown over the years at Ustinov in Howlands Farm, and which we believe will be irreparably damaged by the move. Howlands Farm is more than simply accommodation, a bar and some sports facilities to the people of Ustinov. In addition, there are a large number of postgraduates from other colleges that attend events at Ustinov and a large contingent of MCR presidents have officially opposed the move by writing to members of the University Executive Committee and University Council.

Despite this, we find that the University’s current preferred option is to move the college from its home. When this was first proposed, the University saw that commercial concerns were more valuable than student consultation, with a preferred choice being made without student consultation on 29 July, despite the fact that other proposals were not commercially sensitive and could have been discussed with the students.

The so-called “consultation” we have received has been frankly insulting.

  • One town hall meeting on the 11th of August hosted by the GCR in which members of the UEC (Sally McGill, Tim Clark, Trevor Armour, David Cowling and Sian Broadhurst) took questions on both the relocation and facilities at the Sheraton Park site. At this time the panel could provide little information regarding the provision of a bar or sports facilities. The point was also made, by the members of UEC, that they were consulting us on what we wanted out of the Sheraton Park site, and not on the nature of the other proposals.
  • This was followed by a farcical ‘Town Hall’  meeting led by Antony Long on the 18th of August in which he drew up a list of our concerns, presented an idea of how this relocation relates to wider University strategy, then discounted every single one of our concerns – refusing to answer further questions before leaving in haste. Many students in attendance were offended by the meeting: claiming to have been treated like children. The meeting did not follow a Town Hall format, there was very little chance to voice our concerns compared to the previous meeting and no chance for us to submit any items for discussion beforehand.
  • A survey was produced to support the consultation, whose lack of quantitative questions means that student opinion could be easily misrepresented to University Council. To clarify – there is no ambiguity in student feeling. In a referendum to decide whether to oppose the relocation, 86% of the Ustinov College GCR members voted to oppose this move, in a vote whose turnout was the highest in 4 years.
  • Further requests for consultation were ignored. The GCR does not consider trips to Sheraton Park to be a part of student consultation.
  • Emails requesting further consultation with the university have been avoided, and we have in writing from Prof. Long that he believes that the students have had many chances for consultation.

The Ustinov GCR does not believe that this consultation was sufficient. The manner in which we have been treated by Prof. Long and the university is unacceptable, and the GCR shall not accept that the consultation report is an accurate record of its views.

The timing of this consultation – commencing while taught postgraduate students are writing their dissertations and with the decision being taken after they have left the University – is an affront to openness and compromises the viability of any “consultation”. Regardless of whether this was intentional or not, it means that effective student consultation could not take place. Needless to say, the incoming cohort will not be consulted, or even informed of this possibility, despite the fact that incoming PhD students will be relocated during the course of their degree programs.

Disrupting postgraduates during their degrees has severe impacts. Remember that unlike undergraduates, PG students are permanent residents of Durham. We are those most susceptible within Higher Education to mental illness.2 The community of Howlands Farm provides wide open spaces which include peaceful views of natural scenery, fresh air, and lack of disturbance from surrounding residential areas. The Howlands site is within close proximity to the Durham botanical gardens, making Howlands an ideal location for minimising the effects of anxiety and finding relief from an incredibly stressful course of study3. In addition to this, many international students come directly from large cities, having spent the majority of their lives in built up areas and regularly comment on how much they enjoy the change moving to Howlands Farm.

Postgraduates across the university contribute to the university’s key aims in many ways. We bear the brunt of the research carried out through the departments, which directly enhances the reputation of the University both in the UK and internationally. In addition, we contribute much of the undergraduate teaching at a low cost to the university, allowing Durham to become a magnet for high achieving prospective students. Our contribution represents much of an undergraduate’s contact time, and results directly in improved NSS scores and student performance.

The disaffection of postgraduate students with a university who entirely relies upon our labour can only result in organised action that would heavily damage undergraduate learning and the university’s image. We urge you to consider the consequences of these actions before this becomes an inevitability.

We understand that postgraduates are destined for the Sheraton Park site due to the preferences of the local residents, who see postgraduates as well-behaved and more mature, thus less likely to cause annoyance in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. While we can understand this, we feel that this reasoning would punish postgraduate students for being well-behaved. If the University had convinced us that the new site would be an upgrade or at least had conducted a very transparent consultation process from the start (in which postgraduates would be fairly represented), this would not be a concern – but this is simply not the case. Almost every facet of the new site (barring the quality of the rooms themselves) will be a downgrade from Howlands Farm, even after the reduced student capacity. The GCR is currently working on a ‘facilities deficit’ to state clearly what we would be losing out on, which we will provide for UEC before the meeting on the 20th.

In addition, Sheraton Park does not offer the options that allow Ustinov College to be financially accessible. These include the lack of availability of rooms with shared bathrooms (charged at a lower monthly rate) and the reduced number of rooms in a predominantly international college. The lack of tiered pricing will eliminate a whole socio-economic group from the buildup of Ustinov College’s student populus which goes directly against the aims of diversity. To quote the Durham University Vision 2027 (4.6): “Just under thirty percent of Durham students will come from outside the European Union. The student body will be considerably more diverse than in 2017.”1 That being said, one cannot help but question why the university wishes to shrink available housing to the largest international community of postgraduates in the university. International students face additional barriers in finding affordable private housing. This diminishing of financial accessibility to accommodation is hard to grasp given the college’s motto “Diversitate Valemus” and its fundamental ideal of inclusiveness.

Relocating Ustinov College will damage the postgraduate student experience and isolate us from the rest of the university both geographically and socially. We beseech University Council to reject this proposal and immediately begin seriously considering alternative proposals, this time including students in the process from beginning to end.

Signed,

Ustinov Graduate Common Room

 

1 “Durham University: Vision 2027” http://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/vice.chancellor/password/DurhamUniversityVision2027.pdf

2 Jenny Hyun, ‘Mental Health Need, Awareness, and Use of Counseling Service Among International Graduate Students,’ Journal of American College Health 56 (2007).

3 Agnes E. van den Berg, ‘Green space as a buffer between stressful life events and health,’ Social Science and Medicine 70 (April 2010).

 

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