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Durham University Students Mourn the Death of Accessible Education

14/12/2015 10:00 GMT | Updated 11/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Two weeks ago, my university, Durham University told students that its accommodation fees would be rising to over £7000 for a standard, catered room in the next academic year and that that international fees would be rising to almost £21,000.

To put this into perspective, accommodation has risen cumulatively by well over 20% in the past four years. Fees are now £2000 more than Oxford University and almost £1000 more than every other British University outside of London.

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Photo: Sam Kirkman

So we gathered on Tuesday to protest this injustice. It was no ordinary student protest though. You know the stereotype: placards and banners, chanting and swearing. Instead we mourned the loss, and celebrated the life of a dear and cherished friend - Accessible Education.

The Tory government was an accomplice in the murder. It's scrapping of the maintenance grant in July means that students from the lowest income households will now only just be able to cover accommodation costs with a loan. Money, which they will have to pay back, will now barely cover essentials like course books, toiletries and clothes. The average maintenance loan for a middle income family in the £40,000 region would leave them having to scrape together nearly £1000 extra to cover accommodation costs. Moreover, the Durham Grant (offered to students with household incomes below £25,000), has been cut by almost a third in recent years.

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Photo: Sam Kirkman

There has been no attempt thus far by the University to justify or explain these rises. A freedom of Information Request by Durham's student newspaper Palatinate established earlier this year that the University has invested some £35 million in fossil fuels, and I shudder to think what else student money is spent on, because let's be honest, not a lot of it is invested in students.

The behaviour of Durham can be seen as part wider movement to 'corporatise' higher education. Bit by bit, all regulation of and support of higher education is dismantled. Funding is stripped, grants are slashed and schemes like the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) are introduced, which will soon give Russell Group universities like Durham the opportunity to charge upward of £9000 per year for tuition to 'reflect the quality of teaching'.

This is a tragedy. A tragedy felt deeply as hundreds of students dressed in black, in a sea of candles followed pallbearers in a procession which culminated in a series of beautiful and heartfelt eulogies, poetry and song.

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Photo: Sam Kirkman

We could have got angry. We could have shouted, and screamed and swore. I speak for many students when I say that I fought for a place here, because I knew what a brilliant place and opportunity it would be. I had access to a student grant, no longer available, which helped me to afford my first year. It makes me want to yell when I think that no matter how hard future students work, what grades they achieve and what circumstantial odds they may defy to gain a place - money and profit will slam now the door in their face.

We could have thrown eggs at an institution which so mercilessly holds international students to ransom with its fees. We could have screamed at the hypocrisy of a Vice-Chancellor who recently pledged his commitment to 'equality and diversity' and a University that offers 'access schemes' to local school children who in reality, whatever grades they achieve will never afford to study here.

We could have done, but we didn't. We were students bearing candles, not arms. We stood in the cold, our hands numb, singing 'Amazing Grace' and listening to our friends as they delivered poignant poetry and personal stories. With peace and grace, we mourned the diversity which is slowly being exchanged for an ugly elitism - and rather than avenging the death of our old friend, we celebrated the life of Accessible Education in Durham, what it was and what it meant to us all.

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Photo: Sam Kirkman

I hope the University listens to us, and I hope the government does too. I hope the Durham University will freeze the fees for at least two years and commit to wider student consultation and transparency in the making of these decisions. I hope that by staging a very different kind of protest, we might have caught them off guard. We can only hope.

It's funny, on the day of the demonstration, we'd been tipped off that the main University building, a swanky, multi- million project affair (and of course home to the offices of the elusive University Executive Committee) was being 'locked' down from 5pm in anticipation of the demo. They were expecting loud, violent, boisterous protest. I couldn't help thinking it was an apt metaphor for the crisis we find ourselves in. The shiny corporate university is sealed off to so many creative, talented and different students.

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Photo: Bryony Hockin

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Photo: Charlotte Warmington

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Photo: Bryony Hockin