‘Durham University Explores Relocating Ustinov, the UK’s Largest Postgraduate College’

It’s strange to write out that headline, as Ustinov College has been my home for the past three years. I’ve been a Junior Research Fellow at Ustinov the past two years, and before this news appeared, had made plans to move into private accommodation for the final year of my PhD, partly to allow some other lucky Ustinovian the chance at the full accommodation award that comes with the honour.

It means I’ll be paying several thousand pounds I wasn’t previously, but living at Ustinov is increasingly expensive, as Durham University and private landlords engage in a price-spiral tango, each pointing to the other’s rises as the new ‘market price’. This coming year, 2016–17, my en suite room at Ustinov would cost £6,422—which is simply unaffordable for many students. I have my own reasons for venturing out of Howlands Farm (the new place boasts such luxuries as a bathtub and a cellar), but it feels good to make room for someone who may not otherwise have come to Ustinov.

To explain that I have first to tell some of you what a ‘college’ is at Durham University. Briefly, they are less steeped in historic splendour than those at Oxford and Cambridge, and less independent. St John’s and St Chad’s are indie establishments, but most Durham colleges are owned and run by the University. They aren’t meant to offer academic courses; they offer the academic community that postgraduates especially, beavering away at solitary researches, come to crave.

Durham’s colleges operate semi-autonomously, each developing and evolving their own identity by sharing governance between college staff and college members (undergraduate students have Junior Common Room, or JCR, representatives; and postgraduates Middle Common Room, or MCR, representatives). Ustinov, as an exclusively postgraduate college, has a Graduate Common Room (GCR). This kind of cooperation distinguishes colleges from halls of residence. It means that students are deeply involved in their own college life, debating how to invest funds in social venues and activities, sports facilities and equipment, and other amenities for their residents. Equally, this means college staff on site get to know college members not as clients or customers, but as partners in the community.

Ustinov grew from the Graduate Society formed in 1965—just yesterday, if you consider University College’s founding in 1832—and it must say something about the University’s willingness to embrace this self-organising band of researchers that it did not gain collegiate status until 2003, when it had more than 1,500 members. In fact, the Graduate Society had not been able to begin to centralise residences, so that members could enjoy the benefits of mixing academic and social propinquity, until 1998, when accommodations were built at Howlands Farm, about a mile and a half from Durham city centre. In the mid-2000s, more residences, bringing the total number of rooms at Howlands to almost 550; and Fisher House, its barn-like expanse deriving from its previous life as, well, a barn,  arrived. (Couples and families are offered separate accommodations in Keenan House, which has 74 bedrooms in one-, two-, and three-bedroom flats.)

Over the years, the GCR and College have invested throughout the Howlands site, in fitness equipment, musical instruments, audio-visual equipment. Poignantly, they have mourned fellow Ustinovians and raised plaques and planted memorial trees. And each and every year, GCR representatives and volunteers have pitched in to help make Ustinov what it is, from Induction Week’s orientations and festivities to that last Leaver’s Party. It is a simple fact that Ustinov’s community rests in part on a gift economy that unites Ustinovians from year to year. One year you are being shown your room for the first time, one year you showing the path to Alder to someone trundling along with their luggage.

‘Today’, as in this year, Ustinov College claims 1,617 members, though more than half live in private accommodations. Not surprisingly, given its roots as the Graduate Society, it is a social and academic centre for Durham’s postgraduates, thanks to both the capacious Ustinov Bar and its Quiz Nights (and its curated whisky selection, speaking personally) and the growth of a ‘college projects’ programme into the Global Citizenship Programme, which presents a startlingly diverse array of seminars, research workshops, and informal discussions throughout the year, all planned and organised primarily by postgraduates. Living at Ustinov is, as I noted dourly on my arrival, still a bit spartan in terms of furnishings, but everywhere else it is a bright, welcoming profusion: of international friends-one-hasn’t-met-yet, of rabbit ears twitching in green spaces and hedges, of staff greeting you with the North East’s ‘Are you all right?’ Photos of the endlessly-peopled Ustinov Mound course through every social media stream I follow; ‘Fisher House?’ is a synonym for ‘see you later’.

And then…the University’s Vice Chancellor sent us an email:

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I did not find ‘Dear Student’ a particularly ingratiating salutation, despite the kind regards. Professor Corbridge has been at Durham less time than I have, and Ustinov makes the third college that he has decided to relocate. Is that one college per year? It may not be coincidental that Stephenson (2001), John Snow (2001), and Ustinov (as an official college, 2003) are all of recent vintage; perhaps university administrators do not take seriously the ‘planting’ of a college. Perhaps it is to them more of an evocative name and a crest that marketing can be kept busy updating. (Ustinov’s has been through several iterations since 2003, and I am not a heraldry scholar but this seems an excessive rate.)

The University’s diffidence about this new way of maximising my student experience is also something I muse over. (Somehow the relocation of the UK’s largest postgraduate college did not make it into the Vice Chancellor’s year-in-review email to alumni.) Surely these kinds of major strategic moves should be pursued after open deliberation. I cannot accept that the rationale for keeping Ustinov members in the dark was that they could not be entrusted with their own future: the relocation of the College, in concept, has no bearing on the specifics of the Sheraton Park development. One could simply ask college members if they were open to a relocation in principle, if in fact there were a feeling in the room that this was a question one wanted to hear the answer to.

Yet this is something University representatives keep insisting on, that they needed secrecy in order to negotiate with the developers of Sheraton Park. This disturbs me, as one would hope that the University’s strategic involvement in a £20-million new college property would have resulted from putting a proposal out for tender, and letting various developers bid, rather than the more panicky impression given by this insistence, which I can only assume is related to the lack of second or third option that could be presented with any confidence in its viability. As we would say in the U.S., it looks as though the University was worried that the developer would have them over a barrel.

Thus, the reasons for Ustinov’s relocation, and the timeline itself, seem tied to the earlier decision to move Stephenson and John Snow Colleges by 2016–17 despite there being no space for them—and subsequently add another 3,000 students University-wide—rather than a strategy designed to enhance and improve the Ustinov College experience. The plans for the property have been presented in quickly sketched-out detail, but it seems accurate to say that currently the Sheraton Park property comprises only 418 beds compared to the nearly 550 at Howlands. But then this allocation is based on an earlier plan for a hall of residence, not a college. Use of square footage is zero-sum, so any improvements to make the property more like Howlands will result in even fewer beds. There is patently no way to replicate the Howlands experience (or indeed, most other colleges’ experience) at Sheraton Park.

That leads to a deeper realisation that seems to elude University officials, who seem to think you can move a college community like you can move house. It would be a better world, certainly, if we knew how to create Ustinovs that easily, but perhaps it would be a better world sooner if we realised that we cannot, that we depend on luck and patience.

As you can hear in the video below, University officials seem proud of the news that they are only negotiating a 25-year lease of the property, so that Ustinov could look forward to a fourth or fifth move. (I may have lost track; imagine if University College had to cart the Castle stones around that many times. Even Cuthbert’s monks got tired of carrying his bones around.)

This is unusual, in any event, because of the instability regarding higher education in the UK after the Brexit vote. It is by no means clear that it will be easy to increase student intake in a post-Brexit environment, even with limited exclusions for international students. If the UK indeed separates itself from the EU, it is not simply a question of permitting student mobility. Just as Sunderland’s Nissan plant makes sense because of the common market, so too does study in the UK make sense (for some) in terms of its EU membership. But then the University seems to have been quite interested in Sheraton Park since late 2014:

Further, in a letter to the council, Fairhurst senior development planner Dominic Waugh says Durham University believes it is crucial to its own accommodation strategy the development is ready for students in September 2016, rather than 2017 as would otherwise be the case.


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