I’m hearing a lot about protests against the ANU’s recent restructuring about how Colleges and Halls operate, and how these reforms are (with much hyperbole thrown around) going to fundamentally change the college system. Whilst I absolutely agree that the lack of consultation from the university is a bad thing, I do wonder whether the proposed reforms themselves are necessarily bad.
Rather than point out my issues with the response against all reforms though, I’m going to discuss the one I feel most strongly about: this reform concerning asking later year residents to leave. I absolutely think the ANU has organised this change badly – it is unfair to tell large numbers of people in August that they might not have a home next year, when they expected all along that they probably will. But it doesn’t seem wrong in principle. First year students are by far the most vulnerable of all – many have no friends in Canberra, and are also moving away from home for the first time ever, with no idea on how to find a rental property themselves. Having a college community is extremely valuable for these students. The retention of later-year students necessarily comes at the cost of many first years not getting into any college: the alternative for these first years is then either being forced to live at UniLodge, or to find their own rental properties.
I was a UniLodge resident myself in first and second year, and I do not think it is at all an ideal environment for somebody new to Canberra. I think that the SRs and ResComm at UniLodge are fantastic people, who do their absolute best to create a positive environment – but the fact remains, the basic structure of UniLodge (ie. the fact that it is a collection of completely isolated apartments, the fact that the SR to residents ratio is much larger than at colleges) makes it difficult to create a cohesive community within it. Despite the best efforts of my SR (who I think did an incredible job with what he could), I found it difficult to make more than a small number of friends within UniLodge itself – and perhaps that comes down to my own failures, but I would suggest this is a common experience amongst Unilodge residents. I think the fact that UniLodge first years disproportionately move to other colleges testifies to this as well; it is simply not a particularly positive first year experience. Moreover, UniLodge is much more expensive than the Colleges are, and if we are genuinely concerned for the well-being of low-SES students, then it seems poor form to me to condemn them to the most expensive option possible. Unless they find their own rental property, which brings me to my next point.
Finding your own rental accommodation in Canberra, as a first-year, is likely to be a deeply uncomfortable experience for many. The fact that you don’t know anybody and have to live with strangers as a 16-19 year old is probably hard enough for one: but you also don’t know much about the city, where is good to live, what to look out for in finding a house, and more. I think it is very reasonable to suggest that later year students are much more capable of finding their own comfortable sharehouse arrangement than first-years are. Why shouldn’t we push that burden onto them instead?
The most common response I’ve heard to this is that later year residents help to build a college culture. I think this is an inadequate response for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it seems that the changes in numbers for later years is not going to drastically decrease numbers – a drop from 70% to 50% returners (I believe this is the statistic) means 20 less people, sure, but I simply do not buy that that irrevocably destroys a college environment. This destruction also seems unlikely to me given the metric whereby the ANU seems to be denying students return (though I am aware there are major issues with this too in that the ANU has been opaque about it administratively; I totally accept this point, but let’s talk about the ideal scenario for a second). If it is the case that the colleges are retaining students that have contributed to a positive feeling of community in the colleges, then it seems like most of the community remains intact. Certainly, it also seems to follow that the students who leave are ones who don’t do much for the college: and I know from within my own friendship networks, that even if this isn’t everyone, there are definitely those who remain at college not just because they enjoy it and want to give back, but because it is simply convenient and easy for them.
But lastly, even if there is somehow a significant reduction in culture, it seems to me that the case for reform is still better. Why? Because the comparison is that the first year students, who miss out on the college spots due to later-years staying there, are forced to either pay absurd fees at UniLodge for an experience far worse than what a “significantly reduced culture college” is like, or (if they are poor) are terrifyingly thrown into the wilderness of finding their own accommodation. Perhaps I just don’t know enough since I have never had the luxury of living in a residential college; perhaps I am just being ignorant. Whatever it may be, I just don’t see how it could be that we would prioritise the interests of those who have networks, who have settled into Canberra, who are more mature and able to move confidently into a sharehouse, over the most vulnerable people of all.