Room robberies

The University of Sydney is stifling student societies with room booking charges

The University of Sydney markets its student life with fervour, proclaiming that “joining a university club is a great way to exercise your brain and body, learn new things, practise your leadership skills, and make friends who share your interests.”

However, looking beneath the slick veneer of the University’s public relations reveals countless clubs and societies under stifling financial pressure from the immense cost of running an event. For example, throughout 2016, the single biggest cost incurred by the Sydney University United Nations Society (a society with over 400 members) was venue hire and room bookings.

It would surprise a lot of people to hear that booking a tutorial room in Carslaw to host a (not-for-profit) society event costs $119 for five hours — even on the weekend. The larger the event, the more the society has to pay in room booking fees, and not just because more rooms are required — the University factors attendance into its fees too. For the Sydney University Model United Nations conference, which spans four days and has a 300-strong attendance from universities around Australia, quotes for the hire of ten tutorial rooms for the duration of the conference came to upwards of $9,000. Despite occurring during University holidays, there were — and are — no discounts available beyond a standard 40% discount for student societies.

Tiffany Alexander, honorary treasurer of the University of Sydney Union (USU), said that she’d “guess that the University charges [for rooms] because they don’t discriminate between students and external users of rooms”.

The costs don’t stop at room hire itself. Those who book a room for extended periods are expected to pay overhead costs – from cleaning at $132 to security fees that can total over $1500 for four days. Charging societies such exorbitant amounts seems contrary to the University’s goals of encouraging extracurricular activities. To combat this, societies are often forced to negotiate heavily with University faculties or external organisations to have some kind of sponsorship or funding, simply to cover the cost of the rooms.

These issues aren’t just limited to the University of Sydney. Ali Matthews, a co-convenor of the 2016 Australasian Intervarsity Debating Championships said that the cost of an average tutorial room was $200 per day at the University of Western Australia (UWA), which amounted to a huge $100,000 figure for a 400 person tournament across five days. The tournament’s difficulties were compounded by the inflexibility of university management, with negotiations between the two parties having lasted for ten months prior to the tournament.

On occasion, this leads students to consider taking their event off campus to more cost-effective locations. It would be hugely detrimental to the student population if they lost the exposure and ease of access that comes by virtue of a major intervarsity event being held on campus.

Particularly during weekends and outside semester time, one might expect that there would be more flexibility for venue hire, given there are no classes running. At some other universities, that is the case. Bodie D’Orazio, President of the Australian National University’s UN Society and Co-Secretary General of the National Capital Model United Nations Conference, informed Honi that the ANU does not charge at all for room hire, and  gave students “free reign of pretty much any room they wanted at no cost” on the weekend.

In line with the ANU, the University of Technology Sydney, the University of New South Wales and Macquarie University all provide internal room bookings completely free of charge to students. Taylah Schrader, Vice-President at the UTS United Nations Society told Honi that students “simply need to organise [through a free booking process] a physically free university space”. Honi understands that the UTS Clubs organisation communicates with the University on behalf of individual societies to obtain venues at no cost as it “is seen as helping to promote an interactive community amongst UTS students”.

It should be the University’s responsibility to ensure that their claim that “your membership helps (to) cover the cost of events throughout the year” actually holds true. In reality, it is almost impossible for clubs and societies to hold consistent events when the most expensive society sign-ups are a mere $5. Even UWA’s otherwise difficult system affords societies a weekly two-hour free room booking, which would fulfil the needs of most societies.

The USU does offer a small number of free spaces on campus, but these simply do not have the capacity to allow over 200 clubs and societies the space they need.

It is abundantly clear that there are countless rooms unoccupied — during the holidays, during the weekend, and even during the semester. Having student-run, not-for-profit societies bear the brunt of these fees undermines the University’s claim that it supports those same societies.