So, What is Durham Students’ Union For?

… and Why Is It Seemingly Such a Mess Right Now?

Dunelm House from the river. (own photo, June 26 2021)

The Durham University newspaper, Palatinate, recently published an opinion piece, that found its way into my twitter feed this morning. I thought I’d write about it, from the perspective of someone who is an alumnus, and is a current member of staff. I will insert the obvious disclaimers here: this is my personal opinion as a member of the University, and doesn’t represent the opinion of the organisation in any capacity, whether official or unofficial. So if you’re not an ex-Durham student, or someone without an interest in the tedious machincations of student politics then you might be best advised wandering off now for a cup of coffee, or a cake, or something.

The main reason why the piece exists is that results in the National Student Survey, claiming that Durham Student Union is the worst ranked student union in the UK for second year running, have recently been released. Let’s put aside the fact that I have many opinions (few of which are repeatable in polite company) about the NSS, given my previous life in HE, that are too long and involved to go into here and now, so let’s just treat these results on face value for the time being. The result is based on one single question: whether the student union “effectively represents students’ academic interests.”. There’s a fair bit to pick through here, so let’s start.

DSU is a very different beast to the one that existed when I graduated in 1991. At the time Durham had around 5500 students, in twelve colleges(1). Durham has always described itself as a collegiate university, and is proud of the fact(2). Indeed, the collegiate nature of Durham is often touted as one of its special characteristics, and is still heavily brought forward today as a reason for coming.

As a result, the colleges have often been the centre of student life. In my time as a student it was possible for people to live in college for the whole of their time in Durham, which I did. So did most other people in my college at least, and we weren’t that unusual, especially in the Hill colleges. Colleges could be fairly self-contained places, with all the facilities you’d need for such a community. Each college would have a spread of all undergraduate years, and postgrads on site. Today things are slightly different, even allowing for the target of having 50% of final year students living in college, so there are not unfounded worries about whether the ethos of the college system is being eroded by the much greater numbers of students in the institution, and the differences in experience between colleges. There are other worries about the Durham student corpus beside that, however, given previous concerns about its composition and behaviour. In my time, St Mary’s and Trevelyan were still single sex, and Hatfield admitted its first women the year I arrived. Of course, difference isn’t all bad, because some choose a college based on those differences to suit their own preferences, but the point is that those experiences are very much focused at the college level, and they are more immediate. Already DSU is at a remove from most other student unions.

However, because the Durham I went to was smaller, the provision of services like welfare and the kinds of academic support an SU might provide were more easily and conveniently consolidated at the centre, with JCR/college connections to that central support much more visible and explicit. We all knew, of course, that the cliche of the student hack with an eye on a future political life existed, and would make the push for exec positions, but there were lots of reps in college who did useful, important, and recognised things in the DSU structure, and made sure we knew what was going on there too (hello, Malcolm Taylor, someone remembers you!)(3). It was also useful at the time to have a more central voice, even if some didn’t always listen too hard, because we were involved in protesting against the introduction of the poll tax, the planned introduction of student loans, and more locally accommodation charge rises(4). All of these things provided a focus for a University level student union to do its work.

But DSU also had more obvious, visible, central functions, namely in Dunelm. At that time DSU ran the Riverside Cafe, the bars and, on the ground level, the Union Shop, now long gone. These kinds of central facility are key part of maintaining a focus and a presence. It’s easier in a more single campus based university to do this, say in York, or even Hull (which I know a bit about). Facilities such as shops, bars (in Hull’s case, also a club) provide a highly visible presence that is attached to a Union. Dunelm has always had to fight the fact that it was more distant from the Hill than the Peninsula, but this problem seems to have only increased over time. Dunelm is a shadow of itself, and it’s no longer that suited for its original purpose, really. As striking a piece of brutalist architecture as it might be(5), as a usable space it has issues, especially as the student body has grown, so the whole saga of Dunelm and a possible new home for DSU over the past few years has been …messy. The resolution doesn’t really make anyone, other than architecture nerds, all that happy.

In amongst all this though, the whole culture of student life has changed, and there are more and more ancillary services and distractions being provided outside of the University itself. With a smaller student body (only really a third or so of the current one), there was simply less in the city. In my Durham the Gala Theatre, and Prince Bishops development did not yet exist, , nor did much of the current riverside with the cinema and companion facilities(6). The Milburngate Centre did though, but it was a smaller kind of setup. I hestitate to say this, becasue to some it will inevitably make me sound like a terrible old fart complaining about the young (I’m really not, just observing), but we did tend to make our entertainment more back then. Society has changed, and so too the student experience. Students see themselves more often as “consumers” of service, making lifestyle choices, and are often encouraged to think that way by those wanting them to consume. Many services used to be provided by student officers and volunteers. As expectations changed, and the size of the university, even things like managing the affiliation of societies to DSU, and their accounts, changed. More services went from managed by students directly, to being handed off to people recruited to do it as a job. Even management of college sport by Team Durham, a huge part of the Durham experience, and one I have a fairly direct involvement in from a software development point of view, is not part of DSU’s remit in the way it was when I was a student. In some ways this is good, but it also brings the downside of making the union that little bit more disconnected from the day to day running of things, a little less visible, and a little bit less accountable. It becomes increasingly viable as a question to ask what the Union is for.

But all that said, the actual question asked was whether the student union “effectively represents students’ academic interests.”. So one has to ask whether academic interests are being adequately represented, or indeed if they’re not, what DSU is even for now. The historical Durham issues with a central union are exacerbated because so often DSU seems to be going through a period of arguing, in the manner of Thomas Aquinas asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, without considering why most people would ever want to know or care about most of the arguments. It’s all very well talking about how “DSU might regain the trust of students and rebuild its reputation”, but most of these arguments are not even of direct interest to most students. The pandemic has focused minds to some degree but in many cases wider issues about topics such as remote learning to name but one have been seen to have bypassed the union, and been pushed towards the departments and professional service teams providing them. I can say truthfully that as users of some of these services ourselves as part of our own job, professional services staff are highly focused on making sure experience wotks for as many people as possible. The student body is not secondary in our consideration. We have been eating our own dogfood, so to speak. The thing is, DSU have had a role here, in representation in University bodies deciding the policies that are then implemented operationally, but that is not being transmitted effectively at all: that is a big part of the problem.

Until DSU can find public and useful focus that benefits the student body, demonstrate those benefits to its members, and show that it properly represents the interests and needs of all of the the student body, it will continue to wring its collective hands, launch another review, and fail miserably to change anything. We’ll probably be here next year too, asking exactly the same questions, but I hope we are not.

(1) My college, Collingwood, was the newest of the twelve. At that time, Ustinov was still Gradsoc (Peter Ustinov hadn’t even been appointed Chancellor at that point. Dame Margot Fonteyn had only recently passed away, so my graduation was presided over by the then VC, Prof. Evelyn Ebsworth); South, Butler, Stephenson, and Snow did not yet exist. In the latter two cases, this was because construction hadn’t even begun on Queens in Stockton.

(2) So much so that the University hosted an international conference of collegiate Universities, and set up an informal international network as a result.

(3) Lots of that depended on how active and healthy JCR participation was/is. Collingwood was quite well served in that respect, others differed, from reports I heard.

(4) Some things never change, though. The accommodation issue still rears its ugly head from time to time. In my day the initial preparations for rent strikes had even been made, and (meaningful) collaboration with JCRs done, before a deal was reached with the University. It was the most successful campaign of the three things listed, even allowing for poll tax finally doing for Thatcher.

(5) Opinions differ.

(6) The cinema was on North Road, originally an ABC, if I remember correctly, then taken over by Robbins, before closing, and eventually becoming a live music venue. In fact, it was the place where I saw Half Man Half Biscuit in 2010 with a friend who is sadly no longer with us, and had an eventful night.

A northern man