College scandals obscure the need for student housing

Michael Spence will never fix the colleges, but he can fix student housing.

Another University of Sydney college is again in the national media for the same reason as ever — residents’ atrocious misbehaviour. It’s clear by now that without radical overhaul, the culture of misogyny and toxic entitlement within the colleges will never change.

As with every college scandal, Vice Chancellor Michael Spence and his cadre of damage control specialists have played the public relations game perfectly, and the media have lapped it up.

Last year there was the sensational announcement of a taskforce led by former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to review the culture of the colleges. More than a year on, students and staff have been told nothing of the review’s progress and the furore surrounding its initial announcement has all but died down.

Spence has remained vague on details of the review, or indeed what substantial action (if any) the University will take pending its results. Meanwhile, the colleges have continued to behave how they please with impunity.

Then last week, Spence wrote a letter to St. Paul’s College warden Dr Ivan Head lashing out at the college’s “deep contempt for women” and “pointing out that the College’s response fails to address the deep cultural problems evident in the life of his college”. According to Spence, Paul’s could no longer “pretend that this is not a profound issue in the life of the College, going to its very licence to operate”. Dr Head, who announced his retirement this week, was a tireless and dogmatic defender of Paul’s boys no matter how reprehensible their actions.

It was a stunning moment. Briefly, it appeared he had finally grown a backbone. There was just one problem: it was an empty threat, and one we’ve heard many times before. The Vice Chancellor has become a master of weathering outrage with inaction — whether it’s the announcement of a high-profile review, an internal report, or the promise to have stern words behind closed doors — in an endless cycle of attention and obfuscation.

But Spence’s public relations game has conveniently allowed him to avoid another responsibility often forgotten in the narrative surrounding colleges — that of fixing the dire shortage of any actually affordable student accommodation on or near campus.

Rent in the areas surrounding USyd remains astronomical, while the incursion of private operators like Urbanest, Iglu and Unilodge on the local market has done little to ease the problem, with rooms starting from $350-400 per week. Those unable to afford them are left at best with little choice but to move much further afield, or at worst to reconsider study in Sydney entirely.

The six independently-run sandstone colleges and their grounds occupy almost half of the campus bounded by Missenden Road to the west and Victoria Park to the east. Together, they provide some 1600 beds and make up the majority of available on-campus accommodation. Beyond them, USyd provides a handful of rooms to students in both Darlington and Forest Lodge, as well as the newly refurbished 800-bed Queen Mary building in Camperdown and 200-bed Abercrombie Street building in Darlington.

Given this, the solution seems almost as comically obvious as it is unrealistic. The colleges have had more than enough opportunity in recent years to prove they’re not a colossal waste of space — it’s time to convert them into needs-based accommodation for all students. In doing so, the university could double its current student housing stock overnight.

Of course, this will never happen, but USyd has more than enough resources to provide more rooms on main campus than it already does. It’s worth remembering the University is currently in the midst of a $2.5 billion construction binge — including a new $70 million glass-fronted administration building to house the Vice-Chancellor’s new offices on City Road — that will transform the Camperdown campus.

Further to that, it’s a well-known rort that the University has long funnelled the majority of revenue raised from the student services and amenities fee (SSAF) to Sydney University Sport and Fitness, an independent organisation which only last year spent $12.5 million to build a new state-of-the-art grandstand that will likely boost the university’s sporting profile but will be of no use to the majority of students.

Management undoubtedly has the means to invest more in affordable housing for students, but they lack the will. Many new students, who are already set to be slugged with higher fees to study in the coming years, will miss out on what meagre housing options are already offered by the University and face the prohibitive costs of living in one of Sydney’s most expensive pockets of real estate should they choose, not unreasonably, to live near main campus.

The issue of the colleges — both the disgusting behaviour of their residents and the ineffectiveness of their wardens — may not be fixable in the short term, but has highlighted a different but just as pressing problem. Much more than havens of misogyny and privilege, the colleges are also physical symbols of inequality on campus when it comes to access to housing. Spence’s game of public relations has allowed him to tactically douse public anger over the former, but done nothing to tackle the latter.