Beyond nostalgia: Reflections on student culture

On the culture of nostalgia on campus, and why we should do more than just mourn what we’ve lost.

Art by Nina Dillon Britton.

Inescapable in the triumphant stories we hear of Prime Ministers, actors and great poets of Australia forming the beginnings of their journey on our campus, is the colonialism which underpins it all. 

From the moment I started first year, my goal was to beat the system of the university in every way I could, to pay them back for stealing my ancestors’ land. I detested the seemingly stupid obsession the people around me had with a culture that didn’t appear to be there anymore. Something about this has been troubling me lately – in wanting to beat the system, like many, I got swept into the nostalgia of it and had became one of the obsessors too.

Being a shamefully full circle Sydney Uni student — stupol hack, performing arts wanker, slave to the Honi archives — I should probably live in a dingy share-house in Glebe. Fit with a broken gate and a mouldy cast-iron ceiling that I stare at each night before dreaming of dirty bongs and dodgy SRC preference deals. But I don’t. Because not many people do anymore. I live with my parents in the bedroom across the hall from theirs. And, like most people, when I get home from the Flodge on a Monday (usually just after they close the beer garden well before midnight, early enough to adhere to the Uni’s 90% attendance policy the next day), I have to be careful not to wake my family.

It was a few weeks ago when I realised what I was doing. Late one night I glanced at my side table and let out an embarrassed sneer when I noticed Comrades by Dominic Knight (for the uninitiated – a novel about student politics at USyd) sitting nestled amongst the clutter. My sneer was not just because it is a shocking excuse for a book, but more  because I realised that from the moment I stepped foot on Eastern Avenue, for all my denying it, I had been engaging in the fixation so many have on the past culture of our campus. I’d spent my time trying desperately to live out an experience that doesn’t exist anymore. So desperately that I was reading about it in a novel. More upsettingly, I realised that there was something deeper I was missing out on by doing this. 

***

Growing up, many of us hear stories from our educators that if we go to university, the years spent there will be the best of our lives. 9am lectures: optional, midday beers: compulsory. Unfortunately, decades of neoliberal governments and subtle, but consistent jabs by University management have meant that this reality is nothing but nostalgia.

VSU

Every student politician’s favourite buzzword. 

Until 2005, students had to pay a fee directly to their student unions, under what was known as Compulsory Student Unionism (CSU). The unions were rich, their parties were plenty and their theatresports jams full to the brim with the creative fruit of time not spent on degrees. Their wealth meant they had the money to create a culture of leisure appealing enough for students to turn a blind eye to study; there was something there that seemed more valuable than any lecture hall.

In 2005, the Howard government legislated Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), meaning this money had been stripped away by the nightmare of SSAF. The dream was over. Live music on campus disappeared seemingly overnight, Footbridge was sold and left to become a ghost of what it once was and could have been, and Manning became a victim of countless half-hearted makeovers.

More than anything, Howard detested leisure. He hated the thought of any student having copious amounts of time in which to not be productive. He couldn’t stand that they were putting his hard budgeted dole money into buying six packs to entertain themselves. What he missed, however, is that some of the most important takeaways from the intellect we develop at university, are born out of leisure. It seems Howard never pondered these ideas during his university years. 

Gentrification

While gentrification has certainly contributed to the subtle killing of student culture, I hesitate to paint students as the sole victim of it. Sydney Uni and its surrounds are on Gadigal land, and one of the suburbs it sits on, Redfern, has one of the most strong and vibrant Aboriginal communities in the country. In the wake of students taking up cheap rent around the university (which enabled them to spend so much of their time at, and build a culture on campus), it was the local Aboriginal community and low-income earners that were left in the property dust.

However, now that the second wave of gentrification is taking place, with the uni students of the 90s grown-up and ready to buy million dollar terraces, most current students can’t afford to live anywhere close to campus. This has been a major factor in the loss of campus life. No one is going to want to hang around at Manning until midnight on a weekday if there’s no safe route home back to the suburbs.

Manning, we miss you (we think)

The closure of Manning Bar earlier in the year was devastating for many. The response of the student body, however, seems peculiar. So many of us spoke about how we’d miss it, but so few of us spoke of our own experiences, deferring instead to those of generations past. 

Manning, in reality, hasn’t been cared for by many since they banned smoking on the balcony in 2012, and there seems to be more middle-aged heavy metal bands playing there than student beers bought.

It makes sense then, that when Manning died, we felt a grief that wasn’t ours; it was a grief for what we never got, for what we wanted so desperately. For what those who come after us will never have. For what we will only ever read about in the archives.

***

While it’s important to critique the reasons behind a great cultural shift in Australian campus life, it’s equally important not to over-grieve it. Because in doing so, we miss what’s right in front of us. We miss the opportunity to build a culture we’ll be proud to tell stories of. We can’t sit around pretending Sydney Uni’s still great — we need to rally for better funded student unions so that it actually can be. Manning closing doesn’t mean we can’t get drunk anymore. Rooms in shithole share-houses costing $300 a week doesn’t mean we can’t have coming of age crises. All these things are still happening to us. They are just happening differently. And we’re missing the opportunity to experience them by waiting for them to arrive. There is something incredibly endearing about living through a new and unique period in student culture – don’t let it slip by you.