Culture shock at university

Sasha Veber reflects on what defines USyd.

The first time I thought about USyd’s culture, I was in the company of people from another university.Among the good-natured insults directed at one another’s degrees and institutions, the topic of university culture came up. When USyd was mentioned, one guy snorted and said, “What culture?”

‘University culture’ is a difficult thing to pin down, partly because culture is itself such a broad concept. Despite this, the phrase has certain associations that have been handed down to us from previous generations and, to an extent, through US media. I confess, when I think of university culture I think of an American version of college life – of living and breathing campus activities inside and outside classes. We’ve been told: ‘It’s a great escape!’ ‘It’s a home away from home!’ But for a large number of students, these claims prove nebulous.

With a student population of over 50,000 enrolled students as of 2014 and an SRC claiming to represent over 33,500 undergraduates, USyd is not a small university. However, the Camperdown campus residential colleges have housing available to just under 2000 undergraduate and postgraduate students. USyd can only be a home away from home for a select few.

One friend who lived off-campus described USyd as “fractured”. Another said: “I don’t really know anything about it.” She said she wasn’t on campus enough to comment.

With this in mind, I turned to a friend who lives on campus.

“You don’t feel like you live on campus,” she said. “It’s not until I hit Eastern Avenue and I see all the students and the people going back and forth to lectures that I actually feel like I’m on campus and part of it.”

And the culture? She linked it to Sydney in general: “There is no defined culture – and I don’t think there’s one on campus.”

I got the impression that students had trouble defining the University’s culture because they didn’t feel connected to the campus. This made sense; even living onsite, the University makes it easy to stay away from class. Many lectures are recorded and lecture attendance often isn’t compulsory. An arts student with 12 contact hours could conceivably listen to all their lectures online and end up spending only four hours at uni per week. Timetable clashes mean that even the most dedicated students can’t attend all their classes. I have been in courses where the average lecture turnout could be counted on both hands.

Work commitments keep students away from campus life. Last year, Sydney was ranked the 14th most expensive city to live in worldwide. Residential college prices reflect this, with costs that range from $397 to $687 per week. For comparison, the most expensive college at the ANU is $412 per week. Students living in Sydney who are partially or entirely paying their own way simply don’t have the extra time to spend around the University. Because of these costs, many students choose to live at home through their degree. Add in long commutes, which make getting involved in university life impractical or even impossible, and you have a recipe for an empty campus.

For a culture to form on campus, you need people to actually be spending time there. It seems to me that even with such a large student body, there just aren’t enough people around to help create a strong sense of campus culture.