Push for Governance Overview for Student Accommodation
WORDS BY SANDRA BUOL
There has been a lot of talk about problems at the residential colleges of the University of Sydney. It is well known that the colleges are governed by their own act of state parliament and the university management claims to have no power to enforce a change of culture on their premises.
It is less talked about that other student accommodation facilities on campus face challenges as well. “There are a lot of cultural issues at all of these accommodations,” says Mariam Mohammed, the outgoing Co-President of SUPRA (Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association). She talks about sexual harassment/assault, but also wants to lay a focus on other issues that go under the radar: binge drinking and drug use for example and the consequences of such. Her and Co-President Kiriti Mortha’s (outgoing as well) main point of criticism is that external housing providers like Urbanest or Sydney University Village are described as “on-campus housing options” on the homepage of the University of Sydney even though they are not run by the university. “It’s branded ‘Sydney University’ but in reality, it’s owned and operated independently. And that’s what these accommodations cash in on,” Mortha says, adding that every time there is an issue in one of those spaces, the university would claim they can’t intervene because they’re independently owned. “What SUPRA is trying to put on the agenda there – amongst other things – is a governance overview of non-university owned accommodation. That would include colleges and private providers,” says Mohammed.
The SUPRA Presidents push to have such a governance overview included in an accommodation policy that’s currently being worked on by an ‘accommodation policy working group’. One important stakeholder in this group is Student Services. Director Jordi Austin acknowledges that “the issue around student accommodation is a very important one” and that the university is trying to provide more housing opportunities for more students. (Honi Soit has recently written a comprehensive article about the university’s attempt to create more student accommodation.) However, the university is not able to provide housing to everyone who’s looking for it. Consequently, “what we had to do is entering into agreements with some of the stakeholders in the community and to develop a reciprocal arrangement whereby Urbanest for example, or some of the other providers in close proximity of the University, are able to advertise to our incoming students,” Austin explains. According to her, those providers are aware of the support options Student Services provides – be it when students need financial or pastoral assistance or when an incident has occurred – and are encouraged to refer students through to those services. “That’s a part of the agreement that we have with those providers and we have to hold them to that agreement so that they can get a presence on the University website,” says Austin.
The part of Sydney Uni’s website that informs students about accommodation on the Camperdown and Darlington campus distinguishes between three options: the residential colleges, university residences (such as Abercrombie, International House and Queen Mary Building) and links to other on-campus housing options like Urbanest and Sydney University Village. University residences – while technically run by provider ‘Campus Living Villages’ – are subject to such a governance overview that the SUPRA Presidents wish to extend to other providers and the colleges. It seems to make a difference. “Queen Mary Building for example is very well run,” says Mortha – something that Austin is happy to hear. “Queen Mary Building is a very new facility – it’s only been in operation since 2015 – and we were very careful and deliberate in how we set up what our expectations were in the operating model and what the residential life experience should be. I have monthly meetings with the operators just so we can explore all of these issues,” she says.
The accommodation policy working group is expected to deliver a first draft by the end of the year.