Young adults are often told that the years they spend at university will be some of the best of their lives. But given that Clubs and Societies (C&S) are losing funding, COVID has restricted events, and campus life is slowly degrading, does this statement still ring true?
On February 15th, just two weeks before Semester 1 began, the USU called a snap meeting on the future of C&S funding. The new model of funding, which has changed three times in just as many years, is a grants based system that provides lump sums according to the membership of each society. Previously, clubs were reimbursed 50% of the costs of on-campus events, and were given $1 for every attending USU member. This system allowed clubs to run regular events and provide members with unique experiences, sustained by the purchases of new items for their use, or the arrangement of other services. Whilst the new model provides more freedom with how funds are used, the lesser amount available illustrates the diminishing campus life.
The new model limits the functioning ability of C&S as they have a restricted budget for the semester, and makes it extremely difficult for smaller societies to grow their membership. This means less in-person events (which are additionally restricted by new COVID guidelines), as well as mounting pressure on the long-term plans of many societies.
Due to the mix of remote and on-campus classes, life at university is unlikely to return to its former glory any time soon. The closure of Manning Bar as a public venue, and its conversion to operating on an as-needed basis, demonstrated the shift of university life away from campus. Students are increasingly enjoying their time off-campus, in many of the surrounding suburbs and venues. Additionally, COVID restrictions instituted by the USU, whilst essential to maintaining the health and safety of students and staff, were only provided to executives a week before semester began, despite the impact it may have had on Welcome Week activities planned by Clubs and Societies.
In an attempt to support C&S during welcome week, Societies were allocated additional funding of $100 in USU Dollars for Welcome Fest. This funding, while welcome, establishes a system of promotion for the USU themselves, as the items available within outlets are limited to food or Sydney Uni merchandise, whereas previously these funds were allocated to reimburse societies for any (reasonable) purchases. Whilst any additional funding is welcome, the reliance on membership numbers for funding places increased pressure on smaller C&S. The ability to invest and grow their membership base is limited, particularly as funding is no longer provided through subsidies of events. This inability to grow or sustain membership may lead to a decrease or amalgamate of clubs, providing students with less opportunities to socialise and explore new interests.
Many executives understand the predicament of USU, acknowledging that “the USU is trying their best in a bad situation” (Nancy Luo, MADSOC Event Coordinator). However, considering that the cost of many degrees have increased, staff numbers have decreased, and many courses are now delivered online or in a hybrid fashion, the ever shrinking support for on-campus events is simply another blow to dying campus life.
Similarly to funding cuts, the USU also changed Welcome Fest from the, sometimes overwhelming yet always entertaining, extravaganza, to a gated section of the Front Lawns, where each society only had one day to run their stall. This set-up forced students to either commute to campus every day of the week in order to meet many of the societies in-person, or miss out on the in-person experience and research other C&S independently. New and returning students alike may be simply unaware of the existence of many C&S, or may be unmotivated to reach out for themselves. Alongside the decision to run Welcome Week parallel to the commencement of classes, the USU may have further forced students to choose between the two. Changes such as these, whilst understood within the context of COVID, are cementing the loss of a social university experience.
Following a year of awkward Zoom catch-ups, socially distanced classes comprised of a few souls who braved the commute to campus, and an endless news cycle of “unprecedented times”, 2021 was looked to as a refreshing start. Funding cuts to C&S are simply one aspect of a multi-faceted problem. Whilst the past years have seen ever-increasing numbers of university students, these cuts are just another sign that campus life isn’t what it used to be. The lack of events, venues, and university support is shifting student attention away from campus, and it is unlikely to ever fully return.