I grew up in Kurrajong, a suburb that sits west of the Hawkesbury River, on the lower slopes of the Blue Mountains. When I was younger and contemplating my future, Sydney University seemed so far away. And the reality is, it was far away: a 20-minute bus ride, an hour and 40 minute train ride, and a 15 minute walk away.
I moved to Newtown so I could get the ‘Sydney Uni experience’—after-class drinks, dinner with friends, parties provided simply with the purchase of an Access card—all anchored in the ease of the Inner West. Today, it’s about five minutes to uni, two-and-a-half if I power walk.
I made the choice to move because I thought I had to. It’s only now, amidst the exorbitant rent and the months that pass before I get back to my parents’ house and its fully stocked fridge, that I realise for many this choice doesn’t exist. More importantly, it shouldn’t have to.
The average cost of a bedroom in the Inner West has risen to $350 per week, from $225 five years ago. At the same time, two-thirds of Australian university students live below the poverty line. According to Gerard Hill, the director of Raine & Horne Newtown, many students have had to turn to their parents to bridge the gap, while others have effectively been priced out of the Inner West.
Facing prices like these, thousands of students simply can’t afford to move out of home while studying. Instead, they make exhausting commutes to class every day, waiting and changing between multiple methods of transport, and relying on parents or friends to complete the journey home. The tribulations of a journey that already feels too long are only exacerbated by the dire state of public transport, and the insecurity many of us experience when travelling alone.
Yet, despite the substantial proportion of students who travel great lengths to reach it, there seems surprisingly little effort to make campus welcoming when they do. Posters and pamphlets sell the parties at Manning, faculty dinners in Newtown, or night events in the East. A campus that shapes itself around a trendy Inner West image can only naturally become less appealing to those who live outside of it.
The insular nature of the Inner West campus lifestyle is enough to repel students from the moment they take their first walk down Eastern Avenue. James*, who commutes from Wollongong, was “excited for university… until I realised that socialising and commuting don’t really go hand in hand.” Instead, his commute became a part of his university identity. “You start off okay, making friends in tutorials, but then those friends ask you to dinner, and even a dinner at six means you won’t get home until well after dark.”
The killer is in the details. Ellyce’s experience of commuting to university events from Kurrajong is riddled with thoughts about “how long [you are there for] and what time you will get home if you want to hang around” and the knowledge that “catching trains on your own at night is never a pleasant experience.” Choosing to stay out and bearing the long journey home is not consequence-free either, with Michael’s carefree night at OWeek pierced by reality that he missed his last train home after the opening party, forcing his parents to drive half an hour from Glenbrook to Blacktown station to pick him up.
Ultimately, students are often left with a choice between (or some combination of) not drinking, leaving early, accepting reliance on the transportation of others or crashing on a friend’s couch. Planning a night out is almost impossible when you are not only a new student with no friends to rely on, but are also faced with the expectation to drink to make mates.
Not every commuter wants to move closer to Sydney, and the campus lifestyle can be exclusive on more levels than simply geography. There will always be commuters like Ellyce who can lead a vibrant social life even when campus isn’t a significant part of it, or Michael, who can prove commuters can be involved if they have the right friends and make the necessary effort. But it is a striking, and wholly disappointing realisation, snailing along with hundreds of others up the Redfern path, that a university with so much funding for clubs and societies, so many opportunities for student involvement, sees so many rushing home with little chance, and even less incentive, to enjoy it all.
* Name has been changed.
Photo Credit: askbobcats.com