By Waseem Mohamed
Durham Students’ Union (DSU) has published its long-awaited Culture Commission, which DSU President Seun Twins launched in November 2020 to investigate the positive and negative aspects of Durham’s student culture and offer recommendations on how to change it.
The full Commission was initially meant to take five months to complete, but its publication was significantly delayed. It builds on the findings of the Commission’s interim report in February 2021, detailing the state of Durham’s student culture across four broad themes: “Reputation and Student Culture”, “Culture by Belonging”, “Culture by Learning” and “Culture of Support”. .
The Commission lays out a number of recommendations to support a shift in student culture which includes measures to be undertaken by both the University and DSU itself. One key recommendation was to create a new paid sabbatical role by splitting the role of Welfare and Liberation Officer into two separate positions. This would mean one officer would focus exclusively on student welfare, while the other role (rebranded as Community Officer) would focus on community engagement and student liberation, particularly for students from minority backgrounds.
The remit of the new Community Officer would involve liaising with colleges and common rooms, advocating on issues relating to equality, diversity and inclusion, and promoting external community engagement such as through civic participation and outreach. It comes as the Commission acknowledged the current perceptions that Durham City locals may have of Durham students, saying that a “tense relationship with the local community” remains due to the continued ‘studentification’ of the local area.
The commission also recommends curriculum reforms, most notable of which is the proposal for a new compulsory “core module” to be offered to students that “distills the key elements, competencies and expectations of the contemporary Durham education offer”.
A core module is required because “the core vision, clear purpose, and distinct identity of a Durham degree should be more obvious than it currently is,” according to the Commission. The new module would be modeled on London School of Economics’ mandatory LSE100 module which is described as “flagship interdisciplinary course… designed to bring you into the heart of the LSE tradition… which aims to broaden your education and intellectual experience”.
The plans for a core module at Durham were met with skepticism by the student course representative for Liberal Arts, Lucy Baldwin. She told Palatinate that she was “opposed to the idea of an additional compulsory module, even if it’s interdisciplinary in nature. Part of the appeal of the Durham Liberal Arts course is its extreme flexibility and compulsory modules undermine this unique aspect of the experience at Durham ”.
Baldwin also feared that the module would “prevent single honors students from reaching the depth of knowledge they aspire to gain”, and she thinks that “tailoring the module to be interesting and suitable for students in all subjects would be very challenging”.
In contrast, Jack Moore, the course representative for Economics, told Palatinate that he was supportive of a new core module, provided “that it went through a rigorous consultation period with students and academics around what should be included, workloads and how this will have an impact, and most importantly, how this module will provide something that Durham specifically does not already have ”.
Moore however expressed concerns about the impact the core module would have on workloads and the wider student experience: “We are already suffering from overstretched academics and students, which would mean something else Durham offers will need to be reduced or removed. Even if this is a good module, is it better than the next best alternative? ”
The Commission also calls for a new “required learning program” focusing on sex, relationship and drug education that would go beyond the current consent training provided to students. The DSU also wants to deliver active bystander training to students, and continue its work with the University to decolonize the curriculum, which the DSU listed as one of its key principles in February 2020.
Speaking of the Commission, President of St Cuthbert’s Society Alfie Willis told Palatinate that he was disappointed with the Commission’s “failure to identify collaborative solutions to our‘ fragmented ’system of student representation. Whilst identifying many examples of transgressive best practice in common rooms… it does little to build them up ”. He also said that “In its concision, some of its findings are unfortunately generalized and at times reductive.”
Willis, however, praised the Commission for “articulating what so many Durham students have felt in a concise and understandable way – for students and, more importantly, the University’s leadership.” He called on the DSU to “engage with those conversations and put their support behind the common rooms and student groups that want to realize change.”
This sentiment was shared by former chair of Josephine Butler JCR, Joseph Gellman, who said “My main hope on a common room level is that each college’s Executive Committee will look at the wider recommendations that the report makes and seek to implement them on a smaller scale in their respective colleges ”. Gellman also praised the Commission for “focusing on both heavily discussed areas but also on issues that are not talked about as much.”
Another key recommendation made by the Commission is to provide further support for faith groups, which the new Community Officer would also be responsible for. Among the proposals are to provide colleges with “more provision to be able to prepare and serve halal and kosher food”, and call on the University to commit to finding a permanent prayer room for Muslim students.
At present, there are two main prayer rooms for Muslim students located at Old Elvet and Gray College, however the Commission says these spaces are not fit-for-purpose. The facility at Old Elvet has raised safety concerns for being located behind a pub, while at Gray College, the JCR are leading with proposals to convert the prayer room there into a gym for college students, although this would only be facilitated once a permanent prayer room was constructed elsewhere. It is unclear what the University’s stance is regarding a permanent prayer room for the moment.
The Commission also calls on the University to “develop a radically ambitious Access and Participation Plan”, which would focus on expanding outreach programs to target diverse communities, improve relations with the North East community, and encourage further student progression into postgraduate courses at Durham.
Writing in the Commission, outgoing President Twins said the Commission came about because she was “tired of repeating the same talking points to university management, students and media after every scandal”, and believes it acts as a mirror that is constructed by students themselves to reflect the nature of student life from multiple vantage points ”.
Over 200 students spoke to the DSU as part of the second phase of the Commission’s research, and included input from 11 commissioners including Sam Budd who acted as the independent commissioner. It is not known how much the Commission has cost to produce; no set funds were explicitly given for the Commission to use, although Palatinate understood in 2020 that it may have required some use of DSU’s budget.
The Commission was launched off the back of the publication of the separate Respect Commission run by the University, which also analyzes Durham’s culture but from a wider perspective, compared to the student-focused Culture Commission run by the DSU. The findings from the Culture Commission are meant to work alongside the recommendations of the Respect Commission, which the University are currently implementing.
Shaid Mahmood, who was appointed as Durham’s first Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) in November 2021, told Palatinate : “We are working to build an environment at Durham University that is respectful and where people feel comfortable to be themselves and to flourish; where equality, diversity and inclusivity is valued and difference is celebrated.
“We welcome Durham Students’ Union’s partnership in our Respect work and for this report, which adds to our body of knowledge on this important issue.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the Students’ Union, across our entire University community and with other friends and partners, to make Durham University an even better place to study, work and live.”
The launch of the Culture Commission in 2020 also followed the controversial officer elections in 2020 that saw Re-Open Nominations (RON) being disqualified from the elections despite winning 58% of the vote. At the time the Commission was announced, the DSU were in the midst of completing a democracy review which was estimated to have cost the DSU £ 7,000 to conduct.
At the Commission’s launch event on Thursday 19th May, Twins confirmed that she will entrust incoming Welfare and Liberation Officer Laura Curran to lead the implementation of the Commission’s findings. No set timeframe has been given for the recommendations to be carried out, although the Commission stresses that “culture changes a conversation at a time”, with the recommendations being “stepping stones” rather than “quick fixes”.
Image: Adeline Zhao