When Mark Hillery – Durham University’s largest donor – cut his funding for the institution last month over ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, the students of Collingwood College had the most to worry about. Hillery had previously endowed his alma mater with a £5.6 million arts centre, a shiny new gym and a revamp of its junior common room. He was also known for returning once a year to attend a formal dinner and pick up a bar tab that regularly exceeded £10,000. Double Grey Goose Red Bulls were a popular drink on those jubilant evenings in the Stag’s Head.
But the Durham of recent years is being fuelled by a stronger stimulant. A heady mix of cancel culture, left-right ideological beefs and student rent strikes are becoming the cultural exports of a university previously known for its rugby boys behaving badly and the occasional Tatler feature starring its students. A few months ago, students walked out of a formal dinner at South College before a speech by Rod Liddle and remain up in arms over the university’s refusal to make public the official investigation into the incident. Professor Tim Luckhurst, principal of the college, did little to douse the flames when he called the outraged students ‘pathetic’. What is happening at England’s third-oldest university?
Durham has been tumbling down the university league tables for six years straight – and nowadays doesn’t even make the list of top 20 British universities (as judged by the Times Higher Education rankings). At the same time, what is regarded as the ‘Durham experience’ – a more relaxed, traditional ethos combined with academic rigour – is in fast decline.
Durham still has the affectations of a top-flight university with students applying to colleges (Hatfield, St Cuthbert’s, etc) rather than to the university itself. It has long emphasised a collegiate experience that is both scholastic and social. To critics, Durham might seem like a boarding school writ large – with all the associated problems of cliquish behaviour and fear of outsiders. To its supporters, it is a sought-after finishing school for bright students destined for the professional classes.
Durham undergraduates used to talk about their ‘brand’ or, in other words, their reputation. Playing a university sport was good for your brand. So was modelling in the charity fashion show, going out three nights a week and simultaneously obtaining a good degree. Parties were particularly un-woke: ten years ago, a college rugby club hosted a social for which third years dressed as police officers, second years as Jimmy Savile and first years as young girls. They chased each other around Durham over the course of one evening – and were disbarred for a term. That year, Durham was ranked Britain’s third-best university by the Sunday Times.
The university’s demographics haven’t meaningfully changed. Durham students are 68 per cent white and 38 per cent privately educated and – like any top-tier British university – likely to have been rejected by Oxbridge. It is hard to deny there is a small chip on the average Durham student’s shoulder. That said, there are enough ancient buildings, archaic traditions and world-class academics to pacify even the most achingly bitter undergraduate who is what Oxbridge students refer to as a DGI: didn’t get in.
Despite this initial hardship at the start of their university careers, Durham students tend to look back fondly on their time there. You are hard pressed to find a British university where its graduates revel in the memory of their student days like Durham. Look at Mark Hillery. He pulled his donation because he saw student life was being unfairly impeded by Covid restrictions and recognised that the delicate balance of what made the university attractive was changing. Something at Durham was working. The current administration should be nervous of fiddling with a winning formula.
A reflection of the changing political climate in Durham can be found in the student union. It made headlines in November when it offered – and then subsequently defended the decision – to provide training sessions for students involved in sex work. The year before, it banned both the Conservative Association and the Free Market Association because of inappropriate remarks made by society members. Without the tweed-clad Tories and Rand-toting libertarians, the only sanctioned political societies remaining were the Labour Club and the Marxists. Student unions in Britain are broadly known for their left-wing views, but also for rowdy debate. Silencing the opposition completely is a radical new step.
The Students’ Union – housed in a brutalist masterpiece which most students refer to as ‘that ugly concrete building’ – is still making every effort to give itself a bad name. The current president, Seun Twins, has said on Instagram that: ‘We need to take these Tories to south London and let roadmen deal with them.’ On the other side of the spectrum, Sophie Corcoran, a frequent commentator on GB News and Talk radio, ran for president in the most recent election on a platform of anti-wokeism and that meaningless mantra ‘common sense’.
Here is a common sense position: let Durham be Durham. Most students don’t want the university to become known for playing a significant role in the culture wars. Instead, leave the university to be a centre of privilege on the River Wear where academic stimulation, Wednesday night sports socials and the occasional formal dinner will keep the upper-middle classes pacified before they head back south to London to join the Deloitte graduate scheme.