College heads fear for Durham’s collegiate system

Student reps concerned proposed changes would downgrade colleges to halls of residence

February 27, 2014

Durham University will in effect scrap its college system, student representatives and college heads fear, leaving them as halls of residence in all but name.

Under plans being considered by the university, bursars would be scrapped, budgets would be managed outside each college and service staff could be shared.

College heads have “very major and legitimate concerns about the future of the Durham collegiate system”, according to one college principal, who did not wish to be named.

They are negotiating with the university to try to force a “major rethink” of the changes, which he fears will in effect turn the colleges into halls of residence.

According to a “frequently asked questions” briefing on the changes leaked to Times Higher Education, college budgets will be managed centrally by Durham’s director of estates and his or her team.

The position of college bursar is not included in the new structure, the briefing says, and elsewhere one of the questions says the role “sounds old-fashioned and outdated”.

College heads will still have power over “some college specific requirements” such as the number of formal dinners, but the document stresses that there will be “generic minimum service standards that would be implemented across all Colleges…sharing best practice wherever possible”.

Cleaners, porters and food staff would still be assigned to a specific college, but they would “occasionally” have to “support other teams during periods of peak demand”.

Another briefing document on the changes, circulated on 10 February, says that heads of college would be relieved of “time-consuming tasks such as operational management and HR related matters”, thus “freeing” them to “concentrate on developing their own scholarly communities”.

Explaining why the changes are thought necessary, the document says that “current line management structures were limiting the university’s ability to achieve service improvements and value for money”.

Durham’s University Executive Committee will consider the proposals in mid March, it adds. The changes are only “Phase 1”, the document says, with a second “review of structures and services” scheduled for later this year.

According to a letter sent by presidents of the colleges’ junior common rooms to Durham’s vice-chancellor, Chris Higgins, which was first obtained by the student newspaper Palatinate, the changes “will lead to a ‘halls of residence’ model that would deprive this university of all that makes it so different and so special”.

Asked what powers the colleges would retain if the changes are made, a spokeswoman for Durham said: “There is no proposal whatsoever to reorganise Durham’s collegiate system…individual heads of colleges, who are senior academic leaders, will continue to have budgets with which to commission services for their college members.

“It is proposed that they will not be responsible for managing service delivery.”

Durham markets itself to prospective students as a collegiate university. In November it will host an international conference on “The Collegiate Way”, which aims to “explore the rich variety of collegiate experience worldwide, and to share best practice”.

Even without the proposed changes, however, the institution’s model differs from that used in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Durham colleges do not organise teaching or control student admissions, and, with two exceptions, they are not independent charities.

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Reader's comments (9)

Please be assured that there is no proposal whatsoever to reorganise Durham’s collegiate system. Our colleges make Durham University the very special place it is and we are committed to keeping it that way. It is true to say that there is currently a pan-University review of how we manage accommodation, commercial services and facilities management. The aim of this exercise is to strengthen our distinctive college provision in the best interests of our students. It will ensure that Colleges and their Principals have enhanced opportunities to further grow and create dynamic educational communities. We are committed to enhancing the very special benefits which we know being part of a Collegiate University can bring to our students. Maintaining the individual character of each of our College communities is an essential condition of any changes we may introduce. We hope this helps to allay any fears you may have. Some of you may be interested to learn that we will be hosting an international conference on the Collegiate Way in November which will bring together collegiate universities from around the world to share ideas and best practice. If you are interested in finding out more, you can visit
I cannot believe that Durham University would offer such a weak explanation. It is precisely because much of the provision of services is separate that the Colleges can maintain a unique and attractive identity. To centralise, standardise and cost cut in the way reported will clearly undermine the collegiate system and has rightly been called out by the students. Time for a re-think and perhaps some consultation.
This has been a bone of contention at Durham for 40 years. Its time the University differentiated itself properly by investing in the college system to make Durham distinctive from other places without such assets. Properly supported, without duplicating services and wasting resources, they could be as a vibrant a collection of academic communities as any world class university; but with their own particular character. Invest do not down grade to lower common denominators! The market in undergraduate education will reward the segmentation of Durham even higher up the academic leagues
I was under the impression that policy making with an eye on ascending on the academic leagues is a symptom of the institutions that suffer from inferiority complex and accept pretentious leadership. Lack of consultation makes one think of dictatorship. My two thoughts are in response to MAGNUSF and NICHOLAS MERCER; I would be alarmed if they need to be considered by DURHAM UNIVERSITY.
As a student currently at Durham, the way that Chris Higgins has behaved during my time here deeply disturbs me. Last year the allocations policy was changed, meaning that over-subscribed colleges could no longer choose their own students (which, as a member of one of these colleges, I am sure will change the entire ethos of the community.) This is simply another step towards reducing the colleges to mere halls of residence. In all honesty, I've been relatively unimpressed with the university during my time here. It has been my college that has made my experience of it special- the students, the staff and the culture within my college have been unforgettable. I have nothing but contempt for anyone who would risk reducing everything the colleges stand for simply for the sake of easier admin. Our college bursar is an absolute lifeline for us and the college would break down without them. I haven't met a single student who is happy with what is being done to the university, and I sincerely hope the rumours of a vote of no confidence for the vice-chancellor become a reality. If it weren't for the collegiate system here, I'd much rather have gone to York.
I have only just seen this article - how can removing college-centred responsibilities to a central administration POSSIBLY allow each college to retain its individuality? And without the individuality, it's no longer a college, just a (possibly glorified) hall of residence. Good for all those who are fighting such proposals so hard.
I'd be interested to know whose words are being posted in the name of Durham University above. There are a lot of statements like this floating round at the moment. It's not enough to just say that there is no threat to the colleges, to what makes them unique and special, if you aren't able to demonstrate that you understand how the qualities that you wish to preserve are created and composed. The loyalty of college staff to their colleges and the commitment to the welfare of the students they demonstrate is to my mind (I'm a member of college staff and an alumnus) definitely one of them. The university can't keep chipping away at the colleges and expect them to remain the same. It's possible to undermine the colleges without having a policy to undermine the colleges. There is opposition to these proposals - and the way they've been arrived at and disseminated - right across the institution, from staff and students. Whether they will be listened to remains to be seen.
These proposals are extremerly disconcerting. As a prospective fresher 2014 I would feel extremerly mis-sold if the collegiate system is undermined by admin and staff reorganisation. To firm Durham university is in my mind, firming St Chad's college. I hope current students and staff successfully resist these changes for the good of everyone in the community. I'm pleased that they are evidently putting up such a fight so far. 'Centralisation' is a euphemism for total dictation if you ask me.
St Chad's would not be affected by any changes in the provision of services to University-maintained colleges. Though 'recognised' by Durham University, the College is autonomously governed, financed and managed.

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