SUSF’s Grandstanding

Liam Donohoe looks into the funding of SUSF’s latest ivory tower

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The Camperdown campus’ western side is exceedingly picturesque. Luscious green pastures complement an array of ivied sandstone buildings, a leafy throwback to local collegian’s private school days. Yet, for almost a year now, the construction of a new grandstand at Oval No. 2 has disrupted the stillness, as most passers-by would have noticed.

This project is a small part of the University’s “grand plan of sporting infrastructure developments” that aims to “take the spectator experience to another level”, according to Rugby Club President, David Mortimer.

Initial estimates made in April 2015 expected the project to be finalised by December 2015, though – as at Friday 18 March – construction continues with much still to be done.

There is no doubting the quality of the facility, which boasts a new 1100-seat grandstand, elite-athlete gym, outdoor entertainment areas, supporters’ bar, lighting for night games and training, and a new indoor cricket training centre. No expense was spared, with total costs in the order of $12.5 million. According to Sydney University Sport and Fitness (SUSF) Executive Director, Robert Smithies, while the project is behind schedule, it has not exceeded its budget.

Unsurprisingly, SUSF contributed a significant amount towards its construction – $5 million, some of which was sourced from the Student Services Amenities Fee (SSAF). “SSAF contributions make up less than 20 per cent [$2.5 million] of the overall cost,” said Smithies, and were sourced from the SSAF “capital sinking fund”, established in 2013. Where SUSF acquired the remaining $2.5 million is anyone’s guess but student money – either in the form of SUSF membership or SSAF fees – likely accounted for at least part of it.

In any event, that $2.5 million is considerably more than the Students Representative Council (SRC) received in 2014 SSAF negotations, and not too far off the amount received by the University of Sydney Union (USU).

The University itself contributed a further $5 million towards the project, dipping into students’ pockets once more. Smithies said this figure was “compensation to SUSF for the bulldozing of the HK Ward gym”, which in 2012 cleared way for the University’s new Charles Perkins Centre.

The demolition of the HK Ward gym has been a catalyst, or, to be more cynical, a lousy excuse, for a number of SUSF projects since then, including this one. SUSF’s 2013 annual report consistently bemoaned the demolition of the “unpleasant looking but still serviceable” facility.
Smithies pointed out the “irony of bulldozing a gym to build a research facility for obesity”.

Indeed both the 2013 and 2014 reports read as one long whinge that disingenuously characterises SUSF as the victim, but in the same breath, triumphs Sydney as “standing as the number one sporting university in Australia, and indeed far beyond”.

The same report notes that the University “mostly” covered the funding for the Stage 3 extension of the Sydney Uni Sports & Aquatic Centre (SUSAC) back in 2012, again as “compensation” for the gym’s demolition.

Given the limited amenities associated with the unpleasant looking, 45-year-old facility, which only contained basic, dated martial arts and boxing facilities, one might question whether there was a debt to pay in the first place.

In SUSF’s mind, however, the University still owes it more, as it caused what President Bruce Ross called “an enormous dislocation of our sporting activities”, one that “imposed a significant financial burden.” Despite nearly four years passing, two facilities, and approximately $20 million in remuneration for a facility of questionable and diminishing utility, SUSF expects more.

Ross had a different view of the Oval No. 2 development. “It is a precursor to other much needed building works such as the replacement of our boat shed, provision of a hockey pitch, relocation of the baseball diamond, installation of new cricket wickets, the laying of an artificial turf surface on The Square, and increasing the dimensions of the playing area on Oval No. 1,” he said.

It is natural to query whether this is an effective use of student money, especially since its amenities are ostensibly only available to members of elite rugby and soccer teams, many of whom, at least in the case of the former, are non-students paid to play in a semi-professional competition. According to Smithies, the indoor cricket nets and function room would “be made available to students for hire”, though students would still have to pay for them. The other facilities, apparently, would not be available.

Smithies argued this exclusivity would, in net terms, increase access for students, “free[ing] up much needed space at other sporting facilities for the general student population.” Smithies did not, however, suggest that existing barriers to access – like price and talent – would be reduced in a way commensurate with this new space, making this suggestion, at the very least, a dubious one.

This is more than a question of accessibility. In a context where the University repeatedly bemoans a lack of funding, such frivolity is surely a cause for concern. Top academics move to other universities for a better deal, tutorials are packed and depersonalised, students stand at the back of lecture halls.

To prioritise non-essential sports facilities over improvements to educational quality seems odd at an institution whose primary purpose is, well, education. To do so in a way that provides little return to the bulk of students while using their money to largely support sport dominated by the privileged is troubling.

This is by no means the University’s most egregious misuse of student money. But it is certainly symptomatic of a broader problem, especially as SUSF looks to repeatedly exaggerate the costs associated with the demolition of a crumbling facility to expand.

Sometime in the coming weeks construction should end. When the scaffolds are removed, however, most students won’t get a sporting facility. Rather, they’ll get yet another shining monument to the ongoing frivolity, inequity, and downright silliness that is the University’s indulgence of SUSF.