‘Uncertainty has had a huge detrimental impact on my confidence’

Accommodation changes and deferral inducements have caused distress to incoming freshers at Durham University, says one student

After having already faced over a year of disrupted education, like so many other Durham University freshers, I was told the college I was guaranteed could no longer be confirmed.

Students who are offered a place at Durham University are allocated to one of 17 colleges the February before they start their degree. Receiving this crucial information early on gives students time to plan for the social and financial aspects of university life unique to each college. Some of the colleges are catered – so will charge more in residence fees than self-catered colleges – and many students enjoy researching the different societies in their colleges, joining freshers groups too, in order to meet people allocated to the same college.

An email sent out by Durham in June stated: “If we (Durham) were your original firm choice and you meet your offer condition, your college allocation is guaranteed.” Despite this, students meeting these requirements were left unsure of where they would be living in Durham. Since this original promise, emails have been sent stating that college decisions will be made on the week beginning 16 August, no later than 20 August and, most recently, that everyone will be informed by 1 September. Following this huge U-turn, panicked students have been left with little time to prepare for, let alone look forward to, university.

A Durham University spokesperson has confirmed to University Business that some student preference would be taken into account during college reallocation and that the university has in place, and is adding to, support systems for students:

“We have written to the vast majority of offer-holders to confirm their College and we will write to all by no later than Wednesday 1 September. Any student whose College is changed will receive £500 to compensate for any disappointment.

“One of the principles we will be following in reallocating College membership is to try to match facilities, such as a student’s preference for a catered or self-catered College.

“We are making significant investment in academic departments and Colleges to increase staff and other resources, including in student welfare.

“More information on our Student Support Fund is available at www.durham.ac.uk/student.finance/current/support/ssf.”

Being left with this uncertainty over my college for weeks, though it has now been confirmed, has had a huge detrimental impact on my confidence in taking these next steps in my education

However, with a difference in residence charges of over £2,000 between catered and self-catered accommodation, the insufficient £500 the university are reimbursing those of us whose colleges are changed will come as a nasty shock to those who cannot afford to bridge the financial gap. Despite the topic of this huge price difference making the Durham FAQ page, the university seems to disregard this very real concern – their reply simply stating that they feel the cost “offers good value to all students who reside in a catered college.” Driven to find a second opinion on Durham’s assertion, I spoke to Tom Allingham, head of editorial at financial advice website Save the Student:

“We’d usually recommend students go for un-catered halls if possible – not only because it tends to work out cheaper, but also because uni is all about gaining your independence and picking up important life skills like cooking.

“But to hear that a university is charging well over £2,000 more each year for catered halls is shocking. Obviously, the uni has extra costs to cover in terms of preparing the food, but it’s still seriously poor value for money given that a student could feed themselves for around half this amount, if not less.”

On top of the lack of control over whether students would be paying for catered or self-catered colleges, worries also arose for students as they were warned of reallocations to privately-owned buildings outside of college that will charge the same amount as the rooms originally advertised within the colleges.

Financial issues aside, many students who have made Durham their first choice on Ucas this year have spent months growing to love the college they were allocated in February. Or, for some like myself, the college they were allocated to has played a big role in their decision to accept the offer. For me, being assigned to St Mary’s College meant that, after what was almost a year of on-and-off lockdowns, I finally had a stable sense of what university would look like for me and a platform from which I could meet new people prior to starting Durham. Being left with this uncertainty over my college for weeks, though it has now been confirmed, has had a huge detrimental impact on my confidence in taking these next steps in my education.

Durham University’s Palatine Centre

 

In response to the college re-shuffle, Eva Jasper, a talented writer starting classical civilisation next term, explained to me: “It simply feels like our emotions are being played with: I’ve made friends with people in my so-called “confirmed” college, only to be told that the college I’ve visited and the people I’ve been speaking to for months might be taken away from me, and I’ll have to start the process of adjusting all over again.”

Emily Carter, whose name has been changed to provide anonymity, has been re-allocated to a different college and also feels let down by the current situation:

“In an already stressful year, it feels like Durham have only added to the chaos. I don’t feel as though they took my mental health seriously even before all the other problems. After results day it’s clear they were pretty unprepared really, with courses at full capacity, colleges having to re-allocate people, and only £500 on the table as compensation or deferrals compared to other universities’ thousands of pounds or free accommodation.”

Further concerns have also been provoked as incoming first-year undergraduates in classics, English studies, history, music, biosciences, psychology, management and geography, as well as joint honours programmes incorporating these subjects, are being offered £5000 to defer their place. As someone holding an offer for ancient history, I am concerned about how the number of students may impact the quality of the course.

In response to this issue, Durham University have informed me that:

“Due to the popularity of studying at Durham and the unprecedented success of students in this year’s A-levels and other level 3 qualifications, we are inviting new undergraduate students in some departments to consider whether they would like to defer starting their studies with us by one year.”

“Students who successfully apply to defer will receive a payment of £5,000, along with the offer of support and advice on how to spend the year before starting their studies. We have written to all students eligible to apply for this scheme.”

“Whether students choose to begin their studies with us this year or next, they can look forward to a world-class academic and wider student experience.”

 As other collegiate universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, are reported to have planned for grade inflation by offering fewer places, one wonders why Durham did not follow suit.


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