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in the new structure, the briefing says, and elsewhere one of the questions says the role “sounds old-fashioned and outdated”.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 (2)

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.
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.