Students may be wrecking Durham. But the university is to blame | Joe Banfield

Students are selfish, annoying and isolated. That’s what the county council in Durham, where I study, proclaimed at a meeting this week. I can’t help conceding that they’re right.

Durham is home to about 60,000 people, and the university campus to about 18,000. Nearly one-third of that latter group attended private schools before starting at the university. It’s not hard to see how an air of entitlement and privilege has become part and parcel of the “Durham student” stereotype – I must say, I am no exception.

The idea of thousands of posh young Londoners living off Daddy’s purse in a tiny former coalfield city without causing havoc is feasible. But that doesn’t account for students’ unrivalled capacity to get bored and do stupid things. In November, a group of rugby lads got so bored they decided to insult the city’s heritage in the most spectacular way they could manage. Trevelyan College rugby club planned a “Thatcher v the miners”-themed social, asking members to dress in “flat caps” and “filth”. For inspiration, the team were to: “Think pickaxes. Think headlamps. Think 12% unemployment in 1984” – delightful.

Every other Sunday, I spend a couple of hours at Durham cathedral greeting visitors as a “welcome steward”. My supervisor there, John, like many Durham locals, is from a proud mining family. By coincidence, I was with him when the news of the planned social broke. He needed a moment before he could take it in. Eventually he told me: “It’s disgusting”. He kept saying it: “disgusting”. Disgusting that students “think they can just go on the drink and make a mockery” of the town in which they supposedly live.

He’s right, and it’s not just about that specific incident. Most of us students do not interact frequently or meaningfully with local people, and we don’t know much about the local area. They simply don’t fit into the fabric of our daily lives. We really do, as Jan Blakey, a local councillor, said, “just do [our] exams and then go away”. I’ve been on buses full of students with no room for locals. I know local people who can’t find homes because landlords and letting agencies rent them out at ridiculous rates to students. But I also know there are places I haven’t been and people I haven’t met simply because I’m in the city for just eight months a year, and only for three years at that. Interacting meaningfully with locals is hard when you’re a student.

Naturally, the university has decided in light of this conundrum that the best thing for the local region is to bring in more students. Four thousand of them by 2027 is the aim. When the council called students selfish, annoying and isolated, they weren’t wrong. But they were missing the point. Behind the scenes, there is a board of university executives who too often treat locals and students alike as an afterthought to their relentless plans for expansion.

In addition to flooding Durham with thousands more students, the university’s 10-year development plan involves making dozens of construction sites across the historic cathedral city. Its language of “investing in the region” has been little more than smoke and mirrors: quirky independent stores close, big chains step in. As a consequence, all three of the major parties in the May parish council elections ran on anti-expansion platforms. The plans, however, show no sign of stopping. Our students’ union president, Megan Croll, confesses to me that it’s become her “single task” to convince the university to consult local and student bodies fully before taking decisions.

So far, the steps the university has taken are enough to kindle hope, but they’re too little, too late. A “code of conduct” for students is good. A “community liaison officer” is even better, and community consultation events are exactly what’s needed. The university, however, must treat these policies not as boxes ticked, but as opportunities to listen and learn from what locals say. Only then can communities in Durham begin to find balance.

Be angry at gown swallowing town if you like, but know the force that’s driving it. Durham University must be held to account.

Joe Banfield is a second year liberal arts student at Durham University and editor-in-chief of the Tab Durham


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