Brian Schmidt recognises that our accommodation system is not working as it should. We are 1,500 beds short of demand, and rents keep increasing every year to dizzying heights. Things need to change, and we need more than a band-aid solution.
At the moment, residential halls are not price competitive with share housing, and they should be. Halls were never envisioned as costly, lavish alternatives to private rentals – they were intended to be convenient ways for students to live inexpensively with shared facilities. Look at the design: small rooms, shared bathrooms, laundries, plumbing, and common kitchens or cafeterias were intended to make residential life cheap. Today, rent on campus is comparable to sharing a fully-kitted-out two-bedroom flat down the road. That’s if you even get a choice – with the shortage of beds, you’re lucky to be offered a place on res at all.
Something is broken. Here’s my fix.
Step 1: Recognise that simply keeping rents low doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem. Limiting rents is all well and good, but it doesn’t stop halls from being expensive to build and maintain. If students don’t pay, the university must, and the last thing anyone wants is the university cutting educational services to finance a multi-million-dollar property empire subsidised by our student fees. For halls to get cheaper, you actually have to make them cheaper.
Step 2: Build more halls. Fund this by bringing in some private investment by leasing existing halls. Private capital will help reduce financing costs, and help to reduce the ultimate cost of development. Our VC has done well here.
Step 3: Build those halls inexpensively. This means tackling the union influence on construction budgets, which has a particularly huge and ugly effect in Canberra. This also means getting rid of territory taxes that serve to drive up the cost of development, like the Lease Variation Charge. These are both challenges for the territory government, but it seems the current territory government have made it clear they aren’t up for the task.
Step 4: Conduct a review into how the colleges are run, because they currently cost way too much to maintain. This might mean contracting companies who are better equipped to run our student halls, instead of the university itself. Maybe. It might just take getting some consultant to look at the books and see where relatively painless cuts can be made. Either way, something needs to be done to address hall budgets.
That’s the path to cheaper and more sustainable student accommodation, and it looks like Schmidt is slowly steering us down that path. As always, criticism of the VC is popular amongst students, but I wouldn’t chide Schmidt too much for doing what needs to be done.