Marketisation and ‘the college experience’

Photo by Michael Baker

By Harry Cross

In this blog post, I reflect on how marketisation in UK Higher Education is changing the nature of colleges at Durham University. I understand marketisation in HE in terms of increasing competition between (and within) universities, the introduction of prices (and indebtedness) at various junctures of the university experience and, in Durham, the expansion of student numbers as a way of maximising cash flows, outputs and market/league table positions.

UK universities have increasingly come to market a particular ‘university experience’ in their competition for applicants – or a particular type of applicant. Durham very consciously markets ‘the college experience’ as something it can offer to students. This new way of packaging college as an ‘experience’ has reinforced some of the more long-standing and reactionary aspects of university culture in Durham. An exceptionally high proportion of Durham undergraduates are from private schools (Durham has one of the highest proportions in the country) with a knock-on effect in the culture of individual colleges, within which students have long sought to recreate the symbols, cultures and attitudes of Britain’s elite boarding schools. Durham University’s promotional material – whether it’s pushing its colleges or its elite sports – makes it clear that this is a place you can come to extend the public school boarding experience into your university education.

Costs for students and their families have spiralled as universities have marketised along with society. This is not just with regard to tuition fees, but also rents, utilities, hidden costs and the difficulty of finding secure employment before, during and after study. Consequently, Durham is also in the habit of promoting colleges as part of the ‘value for money’ students receive from the university. This is not the language that would always have been used to explain the philosophy underpinning a collegiate education. This transactional language has filtered down and been adopted by student committees in college common rooms, who organise programmes of events that are justified by the ‘value for money’ and the ‘experience’ that they offer. Paradoxically, this seems to result in more paid events that offer access to a glamorous and flashy experience.

The wealthy students organising these events seem unconcerned that most of their energies go into organising expensive paid events (think balls and formal dinners) that risk creating a two-tiered (or one-tiered but exclusionary) college experience for those who can, and cannot, afford to attend. This two-tier college experience is reinforced by the extent to which students return to live in: as college rents have spiralled, it is only those who can afford to live in after their 1st year who will do so and who will enjoy a college experience that spans their degree.

The drop in returning students living in colleges has been associated with spiralling student numbers in Durham. This has been a key facet in marketization at the university, as its leadership seeks to maximise cash flows, outputs and market/league table positions. To house these growing numbers (it is a central to ‘the college experience’ that all 1st year undergraduates live in college) colleges in Durham have become spaces almost solely for 1st year undergraduates alone, following a willing exodus of older students driven out by price. Colleges were once spaces where students of all years – and some academics – lived in and where knowledge, advice and support filtered down. This has been shattered. Colleges have gone from being communities that span different ages and maturities to an ‘initiation’ experience for 1st year undergraduates.

What is neglected are any scholarly or social aspects of college life that are free and unpaid for. Colleges are defined as ‘scholarly communities’, but there is little of this taking place. Engagement by academic staff with colleges is minimal, and underappreciated when it does occur. Undergraduates are not in contact in colleges with those who could foster scholarly discussions. Funding from the university and energy spent by common rooms likewise do not reflect this as a priority.

There is no glorious past of UK colleges for Durham to return to, as my previous allusion to how colleges are the post-pubescent extension of the elite British boarding schools suggests. Other countries do not have a collegiate model of higher education, and it does not occur to them to create one. If colleges are to have a future (and they may already not have a present, as they have become a name ascribed to an enhanced hall of residence) then they will have to be re-imagined in line with the social, scholarly and emancipatory role that we want universities to play in society. Marketisation is not path to that end.

Harry Cross is the President of St Aidan’s College Senior Common Room (SCR) in Durham University. He has also been a student activist on issues of inclusion and cost of living at Durham as an undergraduate and postgraduate. This blog reflects his private reflections.


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