Student unions in the United Kingdom are vastly different than their equivalents in the US. They enjoy far greater institutional support and exert considerably more influence. It was therefore imperative that I understand how students are responding to the University’s development strategy and Estates Masterplan. Through a few casual conversations with students, I learned that some students felt like their educational experience would be disrupted unnecessarily, or that the University should focus on improving the experience of its current students before it accepted more.
To further explore the student viewpoint, I sat down with Gareth Hughes, Chief Executive of the Durham Student Union (DSU). Hughes leads a team of staff to provide services for students and, alongside his student colleagues, advocates the interests of students in the city.
First, I want to delve into the history of the relationship between the DSU and the University. Can you think of ways in which that relationship has produced positive results?
I can commend the University for their focus on civic participation, i.e., helping students participate democratically through voting registration. I’d also include the appointment of Hannah [Durham University’s Community Liaison Officer] as a positive step. I think recently the University has been more receptive of its responsibility towards students. At the very least, it’s stopped pretending that it doesn’t have a responsibility.
On the flipside, are there ways in which the University gets in the way of your work?
Eight years ago, the University conducted some research into student accommodation, and realised that it was in its best financial interest to keep students in college accommodation. The University quickly pulled out of its efforts to improve the private rental sector housing. In doing so, it actively chose to step away from something students cared about.
There’s also the unhealthy dynamic fostered by the collegiate system. Are you familiar with the Transactional Analysis Theory?
No, please explain.
Basically, the University often acts like a paternalistic adult, forcing students–who are legally adults–into the role of children. For instance, when students misbehave, they are told off as if they are children, and that’s not good for their personal development nor is it an effective solution to their misbehaviour.
So then does student misbehaviour make your job more difficult?
People usually expect my answer to that is “yes.” But student behaviour doesn’t make my job harder, because it’s not my job to manage student behaviour. DSU is not primarily concerned with changing student behaviour; although we are not unsympathetic towards its effect on other community members. My job is to care about the issues that affect students, like housing quality and cost. The student behaviour that I mind the most is their willingness to put up with bad housing. We would also like to see more students voting in local elections, because then local representatives wouldn’t be able to paint students as the problem.
What do you mean “paint students as problems?”
To give an example, residents might complain about students taking parking spaces. But it’s the lack of parking spaces that is the problem, not the students themselves.
Do you think this attitude towards students will ever change?
Definitely. In fact, last year’s DSU President directed me to develop a community strategy to address these tensions with the local community.
How did you find about DU’s University Strategy and associated Estates Masterplan and what were your initial thoughts?
When I applied to this job, the University was just launching the strategy. I liked that the strategy was bold and straightforward. I also found it impressive that they placed the same value on the Wider Student Experience that they put on Education and Research.
Would you say that most students share your opinion?
Probably not. Some students might not understand why the university needs to do disruptive things in order to stay excellent. As a student, it’s hard to connect your current experience to the future. Understandably, they feel entitled to excellence. Students are not exactly inclined to give the University credit for planning to do something that they already expect it to be doing.
Have your thoughts on the Strategy and Estates Masterplan changed within the past year?
It’s still early. Last year we saw very slow progress in increasing women in senior leadership positions. The growth of the University in the City has also been slow, but broadly I’m not critical of it.
How is the DSU anticipating the increase in students, both in number and diversity of identities?
That’s a big issue for us. We’re expecting an increase in demand on services like support for student societies and independent advice. As for the city, it will have to grow bigger, with better housing, roads, greater options for the night-time economy and local retail, since at the moment the shops are geared towards families and older people.
Hang on! I spoke to some older residents who thought the City is becoming less “old people- and family-friendly”
Yes. I’ve heard about the abundance of coffee shops and how the transience of students is killing the local economy.
Well, right-now we have lots of tiny coffee shops whereas students might need big, open workspaces. In general, I see coffee shops as customer-neutral. Regarding the local economy, I think a lot of places, both University cities and otherwise, have successful seasonal economies where they hire more workers during term-time or as needed.
What about the increasing diversity of students?
Given that international students tend to be wealthier, it’s possible that housing prices will inflate, and the housing supply will outprice students of working-class background, perhaps spelling a need for legal regulation.
In terms of our services and work, I am mindful of our ability to help students of diverse backgrounds, for example those coming from vastly different education systems. We are expanding training and development for disabled students and looking into a suitable replacement for the DSU building which is currently not very accessible.
How would you like to see the University change the way it engages with the DSU as it moves forward with the development?
We [DSU] must continue our current advocacy work. And that means not only putting students in these important dialogues but also giving them the training and confidence to perform in these spaces. The University can help by working alongside our student representatives and being compassionate, not intimidating.
What strategies are employed by the DSU and the university in order to communicate with your organisation
There is frequent communication between us, for example through formal committees and open access to each other’s papers. The University is actually reasonably good at having open meetings and sharing conversations
What about the Community Engagement Task Force? How would you rate its effectiveness on a scale of 1-10?
The Task Force is interesting. It’s fine. We support it, but it’s also about the University expressing its interests, not the students. I don’t think the goals of the Task Force are sufficiently controversial, nor are they backed up by anything. I’d rate it a six out of ten, and bringing people together alone gives it a four. It’s early days for the Task Force but I don’t think it has actually done anything yet.