Beyond just a room: How student housing should evolve

Student residences should be a space where, over time, autonomous student-led traditions can emerge and grow. University housing are not just empty rooms waiting to be occupied, they are homes where memories are made. Right now, USyd is not doing that.

In the past few years, student housing at the University of Sydney has been met with mixed reviews at best. Think of the abrupt closure of International House or the sales of affordable Arundel Terraces while the institution hands over management of its most populous residences to third-party accommodation providers. 

There is a lack of imagination when it comes to affordable student housing and what it means to live in a communal space that’s not just a sleeping quarter. Here, I lay out some of the paths forward in thinking about what affordable and lively student housing can mean on our campus: 

STUCCO’s model: self-determination and safer space

I spoke to Hanna Kwan, a third-year Media and Communications student and resident at STUCCO – a USyd-owned student cooperative founded in 1992. Prior to joining STUCCO in 2021, she lived in Arundel House and USyd’s Queen Mary Building. 

Kwan “hated” life at QMB – currently managed by UniLodge, a third-party student accommodation provider – she felt that the building was “sterile” and “clinical” due to the lack of community-based activities beyond the occasional rooftop party. Despite being cheaper than the colleges, residences like Queen Mary are largely devoid of autonomous student-run societies and initiatives. Instead, these are closely supervised by residential managers. 

On the other hand, at the Anglican-owned single-sex Arundel House on Broadway, life was different. Rents at Arundel currently sit at $320 per week for a shared room inclusive of meals. Faith (or lack thereof) is no barrier to living at Arundel, residents are encouraged to participate in bible study sessions and activities linked to St Barnabas’ Church. 

“Monday night dinners were compulsory, afterwards, you had a discussion or activities not related to Christianity, but similar to youth groups,” Kwan said, describing Arundel as a small, tight-knit community. 

Later on, Kwan feels that the anti-oppression politics, history and shared responsibilities at STUCCO align most closely to her heart. From Monday to Thursday, residents take turns to form groups and cook for everyone as part of the house’s supper club. 

Yet, one of the most vexing problems when it comes to student housing is student safety. Residences like STUCCO are not immune to bullying, harassment and other breaches within its corridors. When asked about what measures the co-op takes in response to incidents, Kwan says that even though breaches do occur at the cooperative, there are structures in place through its safer space policy to resolve conflict and hold perpetrators to account. 

“If there’re emergencies we have EGMs [Emegency General Meetings] and everyone gets a say. Even if there is conflict, we try to deal with it through democratic mediations or something like that,” Kwan said.   

“Even places like STUCCO obviously deal with bullying and harassment but we have a commitment to uphold principles like anti-oppression, non-violence and ending racism. If people don’t align with that, obviously, there’s going to be a problem.”

Beyond just a room towards an affordable academic community 

One of the main obstacles to housing models like STUCCO from becoming mainstream at universities, at least in Australia, is restrictive state laws banning international students from residing in student cooperatives. The same goes for social and public housing in NSW – you must be a citizen or permanent resident to apply. 

What emerged from Kwan’s journey was the link between how university residences come about, their identity and affordability. In her view, a key ingredient behind the elitism of USyd’s residential colleges is the connection between their astronomical rent and an exclusive alumni network whose post-university careers and goals fundamentally differs from students from a low income background. 

This, in turn, leads to a cycle where residential colleges become a pipeline for producing future donors for USyd’s enormous endowment. Combined with the colleges’ legal detachment from USyd, this creates incentives against affordability that, otherwise, their counterparts in Oxbridge (as public institutions) are bound to offer. 

“Instead, with us, we have a lot of people who work in grassroots organisations who want to give people who live in STUCCO a chance to work in grassroots businesses and community organisations,” Kwan said. 

“The people who go there [residential colleges] are the ones who work for the 1% unlike people who need STUCCO. We are a needs-based cooperative.” 

Throughout our conversation, there was a sense that reforms to turn colleges into affordable housing or founding better student residences is not a far-fetched aim, with the template already laid out not only in models like STUCCO but university-owned residences overseas.  

Kwan imagines that USyd should invest in student residences so that they become more than just a mere contract for rooms and become a space where autonomy and lively student life can take place. Over time, student residences should be an affordable academic space endowed with their own libraries and student societies. Combined with the passage of time, new and old student traditions can emerge. 

Elsewhere, at Paris’ intercollegiate Cité internationale universitaire de Paris (CIUP) – formerly residences of the old Sorbonne – rents typically hover at approximately AU$200 per week in buildings rich in history with deeply entrenched nations- or region-based identities of their own: Southeast Asia, Spain and Ile-de-france. 

It’s not unheard of at Sydney University either, with the spirit of International House lying dormant in its redbrick shell on City Road. And thus, the ball lies in the University’s court to decide whether it wants to continue its current trajectory where USyd-owned student housing will likely slide into further cultural sterilisation under management by UniLodge, or invest genuinely and with good intent into life at university residences and STUCCO. 

This article has been ammended on request of an author’s source for this piece.