Chronic maintenance issues, managerial deflection and a Town Hall meeting as residents demand change at Regiment

Regiment residents demand reforms following a town hall meeting with USyd management.

Chronically unaddressed maintenance issues, a cleaning deficit, COVID-19 inconsistencies and underpaid residential assistants  — these are some of the revelations emerging from students currently residing at the Regiment Building – one of USyd’s largest student residences. A winter of discontent with university management has led to a tumultuous town hall meeting where students called for change.

In late June, Regiment went into strict lockdown after the COVID-19 outbreak in the Eastern Suburbs. Over this period, students were primarily confined to their bedrooms and the sole shared kitchen in the entire facility. A collective sense of isolation, combined with a perception that USyd and UniLodge management were unresponsive, eventually led to a stream of complaints and scathing Google Reviews.

Regiment was opened in 2019 as part of USyd’s response to a deepening crisis in affordable housing supply in the Inner West and wider Sydney. Rents currently sit at $338 per week for a full-year contract.

According to documents acquired through GIPA by Honi, management responsibilities were awarded to Campus Living Villages upon Regiment’s completion. Campus Living Villages is a transnational private purpose-built student accommodation provider whose oversight of New Zealand’s Sonoda Christchurch hall attracted widespread outrage and a judicial inquiry following the death of a student.

In January 2021, USyd handed management of Regiment, along with Queen Mary Building (QMB) and Abercrombie to UniLodge. The conglomerate presides over a portfolio of 105 residences across Australia and New Zealand. Some 31,000 students call these rooms their home. 

Broken essential amenities and unresponsive management

Anita* is an Arts/Law student who has been residing at Regiment since January 2021. She tells Honi that USyd management constantly mismanaged essential facilities in the self-catered building during the lockdown months: “We’ve had trouble [with] the filtered water for quite a long time. At one point there was only one working tap in the whole kitchen. So that’s the only place where we could get drinking water and water when we were cooking.”

According to Ira Patole, a Regiment resident and SRC Disabilities and Queer Officer, Regiment management often took a long time to address matters. It was clear that Patole was frustrated by what was a chronically slow and unresponsive administration.

 “They didn’t replace them for a couple of weeks and they kept telling us that they would,” explained Patole.  

Similarly, numerous other residents such as user Alex Helgeland on Google reviews reported waiting up to three months for service requests to be completed, indicating significant queues for maintenance issues to be fixed.                              

A rusted soap dispenser unit in a Regiment shared bathroom  as of July 2021. Photography by user Michael Scott*.

Residents also expressed concerns regarding essential shared spaces such as bathrooms, one of which is shared between dozens of residents. Haswanth Palaparthy is a veteran resident at Regiment and a residential assistant (RA), he observed a reduced cleaning schedule in comparison to 2020. 

“The building used to be cleaned much more regularly in 2020 when COVID was still a huge factor. This wasn’t the case this year,” Palaparthy said. “There have been times when the bathrooms were only cleaned twice a week during the COVID lockdown when there were around 400 people living here.”

An impersonal welfare check-in system  

Another oft-mentioned frustration involves UniLodge’s welfare checkup which was criticised by residents as superficial. At the beginning of lockdown, UniLodge sent periodic standardised emails asking students to respond as a way of monitoring their wellbeing. Later on, UniLodge switched delivery to an app that asked residents to rate their wellbeing through automated alerts and questions. 

Anita described getting alerts that presented questions such as “How are you feeling this week?” and should residents opt for “good or neutral” from a number of options, management would stop checking up on these residents.

However, they describe the system as dysfunctional and deeply impersonal, noting on one occasion receiving an email that addressed them not by name but instead, by their student ID. They felt that these emails amounted to a tick-a-box exercise rather than a genuine attempt at welfare oversight. 

A welfare check email from USyd accommodation services to Anita.

“It was obviously very automated and all the emails I was getting [were] the same. I personally wouldn’t tell these strangers in reception that I was not doing well.”

A similar sentiment was brought up by Palaparthy. He emphasised the need for a robust, personalised welfare check-in ecosystem instead of relying on automation. 

“People only respond “poor” on the app when they’re at their absolute worst. It’s a passive check. It needs an active component for consistent mental health care,” he said.

USyd’s Student Accommodation Services recently confirmed that a joint student/staff Welfare Check working group is underway. In separate correspondence seen by Honi, it is understood that the issues have warranted escalation to USyd’s Crisis Management Committee and the Office of General Counsel. 

However, there are issues regarding residents’ awareness of the Welfare Check working group, with a November 19 session cancelled due to low attendance and being scheduled amid the current exam period. Scheduling it during exam week seemed to have undermined management’s efforts. 

Palaparthy questioned the purpose of scheduling such an important initiative during STUVAC week when most students were busy. He emphasised that management must bring onboard psychologists, mental health and academic experts as part of a wider conversation to establish a proactive student welfare system. 

COVID-19 inconsistencies

Perceived inconsistencies surrounding COVID-19 mitigation measures was among the most pertinent of concerns, particularly involving mask-wearing. Anita, for instance, voiced unease with what they deemed an inconsistent application of the public health orders. 

“A lot of the frustrations were also that a lot of the rules have been very arbitrarily governed by staff. Some people nearly [got] evicted for not wearing a mask at one time and others would walk around without a mask with no consequence. And sometimes, staff didn’t wear masks [either].”

For Anita, the seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent enforcement of the mask-wearing mandate represented what they saw as chaotic management, which heightened tensions and worsened students’ mental health amid an already difficult time.

“One of my friends was told that if [UniLodge staff] caught him without a mask next time, they could kick him out and it would go on his transcript when he graduates.”

Students also voiced frustration surrounding management’s apparent unwillingness to consider vaccination status as part of the building’s reopening schedule since the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in October. 

At present, external visitors remain prohibited pending further consultation by USyd and UniLodge. Regiment’s measures mirror the stringent restrictions required for admission to Fisher Library which have attracted mixed reactions from the student community in view of NSW’s reopening. 

As of December 4, USyd has confirmed that it will implement a vaccine mandate for new residents across its entire accommodation portfolio for 2022. 

The Town hall, underpayment and a culture of miscommunication

In response to anger reflected in dozens of complaints on Google Reviews, UniLodge and USyd hosted a residential town hall meeting at Regiment in November.

According to the University, the Student Life, University Infrastructure, and UniLodge staff were present at the gathering. Over the course of the webinar meeting, students submitted their complaints on a Slido board that were addressed by the panel.

The session covered topics ranging from laundry price discrepancies to alleged underpayment of residential assistants. Several submissions on Slido alleged that RAs’ remuneration packages were disproportionately low compared to what is expected of the position.

Some accounts alleged systemic underpayment of RAs (residential assistants) with one resident writing that “RA[s] are basically expected to work for free (max $250 a month)”. Regiment RAs are contracted to be paid only for organising ResLife activities and a few organised meetings, with matters such as emergency and out-of-hours incidents being unpaid labour. 

If true, this stands in stark contrast to remuneration packages of RAs in comparable buildings and residential colleges. In contrast, a former RA at Sydney University Village confirmed that their pay ranged between $25-30/hour for an average of 8 hours per week. Similarly, an RA at Sancta Sophia College said that they were paid $375 per fortnight. This would mean that Regiment RAs are grossly underpaid compared to other residences. Sadly, this parallels revelations of years-long wage theft that disproportionately targets casual staff. 

It is understood that following the town hall meeting, some changes have been implemented, with UniLodge immediately loosening COVID-19 restrictions in direct response to the event.

“The day after the town hall happened, everything opened up,” one resident remarked. 

Other residents, including Anita, Patole and Palaparthy, noted that parts of USyd management were more receptive to reforms and feedback, with Pro Vice Chancellor (Student Life) Susanna Scarparo being cited as open to reforms.

Despite this, substantial gaps in communication between residents, UniLodge, and University management remain a major, endemic issue. Although students acknowledged that Scarparo was responsive to concerns, residents were surprised that Scarparo, despite her position, had never heard about the cleaning deficit and a myriad of other issues. This signals a clear disconnect in communications between Regiment staff and an aloof UniLodge and University management. 

Miscommunication and a systemic lack of managerial accountability have been identified as key ingredients in hampering the residential experience throughout the recent lockdown. Palaparthy described a confusing information ecosystem heavily reliant on RAs feeding information to students through large unofficial group chats. Unfortunately, the approach risks excluding residents who are less connected to an RA. 

“We were talking about the modifications that happened during COVID like opening or closing with Flexi Spaces. None of this was communicated to all of the residents properly. There were newsletters pretty much every week and no one read them. I haven’t read them yet.” he said.

Anita, Palaparthy and Google reviewers agree that a culture of miscommunication was deeply embedded in Regiment’s operations. UniLodge and USyd management were often evasive and geared towards minimising liability as opposed to providing substantive, timely solutions to issues. 

“There have to be better communication channels with the residents,” Palaparthy insisted.  

Calls to establish an SRC for Regiment

Although residents secured some demands at the town hall meeting, Palaparthy is adamant that for lasting changes to occur, USyd must consider establishing a student’s representative council specifically for Regiment residents.

“RAs would bring up concerns about welfare checks or visitors or stuff that the residents wanted, but they would be quickly brushed off as not representative of the residents because the residents themselves didn’t say this.”

 Palaparthy spoke candidly about his SRC proposal. He believes that Regiment, which houses up to 650 students at full capacity, desperately needs democratic representation to ensure that residents are properly heard. 

“I think an SRC would go a long way to benefit the system to run smoothly, but also just any institution with 400 active living members needs systemic advocacy. ”

Aside from the advocacy role that such a committee may portend for current and future residents, he is optimistic that an SRC will not only allow for democratic empowerment of residents but also more incisive scrutiny of University management. 

If these proposals come to fruition, they will not be unprecedented, with the Stucco Housing Cooperative having established its own USU-affiliated society catering for some 100+ students at the historic building. Unlike other residences, STUCCO is democratically owned and is self-managed, offering a radical blueprint for residential governance. 

“There needs to be a consistent response to any COVID-related concerns, and student welfare must be put first. Regiment must be a safe space where residents feel comfortable. The no visitor policy needs to also be reconsidered, especially when the Colleges and other accommodation have already begun to host elaborate social events. Residents deserve better treatment,” said  incoming SRC Welfare Officers Grace Wallman and Eamonn Murphy in a statement.

Professor Susanna Scarparo also told Honi that the University acknowledged the town hall and the situation at Regiment.

“A town hall was held recently with residents of [the] Regiment Building, attended by a panel that included our Student Life team, University Infrastructure team and staff from the operator UniLodge,” Scarparo said in a statement.

“We understand living with COVID-19 restrictions is challenging and we strive to put in place the necessary protective measures in these shared facilities while continuing to create a positive student experience.”

Although further changes are pending consultation, Scarparo’s statement is one that has been repeated time and time again in response to Google reviews that produced little change to residents’ wellbeing. Should further substantive reforms not eventuate, these platitudes will be further evidence of a large institution in desperate need of democratic overhaul. 

*denotes a pseudonym used to preserve anonymity.