UniLodge in Disgrace

ANU is renowned for its extra-curricular life, and specifically for its student body’s ability to autonomously organise extremely successful events, free from the influence of staff. This holds true right across campus, from the historic Bruce Hall Common Room Committee to the wildly successful Harry Potter Club. However the influence of one private corporation at ANU has seemingly aspired to reverse this trend, with seriously disastrous results so far.

You might expect that a company chosen by Australia’s best university to house half of its resident student body would have a clear understanding of where it sat in our thriving campus community. Yet for utterly inexplicable reasons UniLodge constantly oversteps its role, with accompanying tales of highly questionable and at times, ridiculous, business practices.

Importantly, this is not an attack on lodge residents, who are by and large an extremely warm, diverse and tolerant bunch. In fact I’d say that lodge residents are the most welcoming and friendly on campus, perhaps brought together in anguish under what can only be described as ANU’s answer to the Big Brother house.

Dysfunctional management practices abound. Whilst Australia’s had internet banking since 1997, a reimbursement at UniLodge still consists of a receptionist peeling notes from a wad of cash. All funding for the Residents’ Committee (Rescomm) and Senior Residents arrives via cheques, sent from head office, cashed out and stored in a safe. Arbitrary, and completely unenforceable, signs advertising $100 fines for petty misdemeanours plaster the walls (e.g. for not installing anti-virus software). Mysterious ‘cleaning’ and ‘administration’ fees are globally perceived as blatant profiteering, and a bond twice that of all other residences pays UL an impressive flow of interest income earned on residents’ money.

One might expect Rescomm to fare a little better, with the insight of keen bright students. Not so. The Committee doesn’t have a bank account, ABN or constitution. It doesn’t event keep a record of its transactions, instead piping cash through a literal black box. But given management’s attitude (quote “no student has the delegation necessary to bind UL fund expenditure”), who can really blame them?

Whilst residents pay a $100 “Community Spirit Fee” annually (cheekily changed from “Residents’ Committee Fee” for 2012 in order to legitimise control of some $200,000 p.a. of student funds), management refuses to give residents any meaningful say on where their fees actually go. Funds are granted on an event by event basis, severely restraining the ability of Committee members to budget responsibly or to plan for multi-year capital purchases. Expenditure reports of this fund do not exist, which is concerning in light of rumours that a 2011 $40,000 surplus was simply absorbed into UL’s general revenues.

Some argue that students aren’t sufficiently competent to handle this kind of money, an absurd argument given the extent of financial support given to other hall committees through the ANU Department of Residential and Campus Communities. What’s really concerning though, is that the main perpetuator of this argument is UL management, who seem to do their very best to stymie any form of independent thought emanating from residents. Management seems to view Residents’ Committee as an elaborate puppet show, designed to promote a ridiculous “Community Spirit” branding that dominates UL’s marketing material.

When the Committee tried to draft a constitution earlier in the year, they were promptly told that a “Terms of Reference” document was the best they could hope for. Management “clarifies” the minutes from week to week, and won’t even let reps email all residents without approval, unheard of at other halls where students receive multiple emails direct from reps per day. Even in the upcoming elections process, UL has its finger in the pie, appointing UL employees as Returning Officers and demanding that all campaign posters be submitted for approval before publication.

UL’s dictatorial management style has had a massive toll on life here. When it’s management’s way or the highway, there’s absolutely no encouragement or incentive to seek insight or advice from more established and experienced student organisations on campus. And frankly, part of the blame must fall on Daley Road student representatives, who often come across as scared, or suspicious, of UL’s size and potential sway. These tensions are alarming, eliciting Stockholm syndrome-esque sentiments among lodge residents, hence creating barriers to productive collaboration with other residents’ associations. Event management and representation for 2000 students is not something you can teach yourself, and without all ANU student leaders coming together to proactively support lodge residents, it is doubtful that lodge life will ever make the cut.

Aside from basic governance issues, the lack of an autonomous Residents’ Committee prevents the expression of a unified student voice. The importance of this cannot be underestimated: our laundry prices are extortionate; tariffs are unaffordable; there is no way to terminate a UL occupancy agreement early; and there exists no academic support network.

Also, there exist huge tensions between different student demographics, and instead of facilitating discussion, UL management rules by edict. For example, organising alcoholic events has made excruciatingly difficult, encouraging private room parties which, in complete isolation, cannot foster new friendships. Last Australia day, photos of residents enjoying a beer in a blow up pool were lambasted by management – an idiotic response that, even if remotely justified, only served to induce feelings of cultural alienation in an environment that prides itself on diversity.

The pastoral care situation is the most depressing aspect of life at lodge.  Most residents do not know the name of their Senior Resident, let alone their Community Coordinator or President; unsurprising given ratios of up to 1 SR per 115 residents. Management’s response to this has been to institute a myopic emphasis on risk management, hoping that mandatory monthly 30 second interactions with each resident might prevent anything too disastrous from happening.

Unilodge is not a typical Civic apartment block, but a university accommodation environment where residents should be expected and encouraged to participate in the community. Since 1961, ANU’s other residences have proven just how achievable this ideal is. Quite clearly, the answer is to confront the apparently harsh truth that well-resourced, elected student representatives are in the best possible position to facilitate real community building. However the most important concept to note is that management’s building maintenance and pastoral care responsibilities end well short of meddling in student advocacy, social events and control of residents’ committee fees.