A class act: The USyd fallacy of inclusion

Affordable housing for rural and low SES students at the University of Sydney is practically non-existent.

Art by Shrawani Bhattarai

The University of Sydney (USyd) is notorious for its ethos of elitism and privilege. With some of the worst numbers of low socio-economic status (SES) and rural enrolments in the country, it’s not hard to see why. 

Though, it is more than culture and class keeping rural and low SES students from a high-class education. Even before disadvantaged students experience the blue-blooded culture on campus, they face the exclusivity of the University’s on campus accommodation. USyd’s superficial endeavours to increase diversity are yet to fix the problem.

With an onslaught of negative PR following the dangerous culture of privilege shown in the 2018 Red Zone Report, and criticism from the Bradley Review calling for a 20% increase in the enrolment of low SES students by 2020; USyd focused its 2016-2020 Strategic Plan towards ensuring students have the ability to thrive “whatever their social or cultural background.”

Though existing in the heart of the country’s most expensive city, USyd has a difficult time reconciling a tradition of exclusivity and classism with the desired image of diversity on campus. 

The prices of accommodation on the cheaper side still skyrocket above what a University student can make while efficiently working, studying and finding their feet in a new city without daddy’s financial support. 

The most well known accommodations are that of the private residential colleges, which average around $1400 a fortnight, as well as the less costly Regiment and Queen Mary, which range upwards from $720 a fortnight. If a student works a casual job at $19.49 an hour, it would take 20 hours of work a week on top of studying needed to cover the cost. This doesn’t include money for food, travel or any other unexpected or leisure expenses. 

While being a “poor uni student” is an expected part of the university experience, disadvantaged and low-SES students are disproportionately excluded by the effects of cost-of-living. And as a consequence these kids are turning their backs on a high-class education.  

Efforts have been made by USyd to increase social inclusion, pouring money into volunteer programs to encourage disadvantaged student engagement, which has led to positive results for Indigenous students. 

Indigenous education programs like the Wingara Mura-Bunga Burrabugu have seen a 36 per cent rise in First Nations student numbers. The strategy includes pre-tertiary outreach programs, admission pathways and, crucially, scholarships and rent support. 

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Accommodation Award within the program offers a fixed rent of $50 a week for nominated University owned accommodation, including the affluent residential colleges. It also waives application fees and bond.

The low SES and rural equivalent is yet to exist, which is unfortunate considering the success of the program with First Nations students. 

Currently, to access equity scholarships available through USyd’s accommodation services, non-Indigenous rural and low SES students are made to pay any bond and application fees when applying. 

Applicants must go through the process as normal full-fee-paying residents and are notified about the success or failure of their scholarship application days or weeks later. This can mean paying hundreds of dollars in non-refundable bond, application fees and cancellation to get out of accommodation contracts.

All of the University’s residential colleges require scholarship application fees. Low SES or rural students applying for an equity scholarship at Wesley College, for example, would be made to pay $1000 in bond and another $100 for each different scholarship applied for.

There are no application fees for the more affordable Regiment or Queen Mary accommodations. Though, once students are green-lighted for equity scholarship subsidies, they are forced to pay a $200 acceptance fee, a four week deposit and two weeks of rent in advance, all before they receive their financial support. 

This leaves some of the most vulnerable of students out of pocket before they are even notified of whether their application was successful or not. It’s a costly risk and many low SES and rural students cannot afford to apply for and accept the scholarships meant to ease the financial burden of studying at USyd.

If the University is as dedicated to increasing on-campus diversity as outlined in the 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, then attention should be turned towards housing one of the most disenfranchised groups on campus. There is a need for better programs and more practical funding for accommodation subsidies for low SES and rural students on campus as seen with the success of the Wingara Mura-Bunga Barrabugu program. Because currently, these disadvantaged students bear witness to USyd’s entrenched class divide before they can even step foot onto the green manicured lawns.

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