Exclusive college colleges are just playgrounds for the rich
Currently, dozens of students are walking around the University of Sydney’s Camperdown campus dressed in formal academic robes while carrying bricks.
It’s part of an O-Week initiation ritual at St Andrew’s, one of Australia’s oldest and most prestigious university colleges. It was established in 1867 by an Act of Parliament and, like most colleges at the University of Sydney, it is located on Crown land in one of Sydney’s most expensive and desirable suburbs .
The O-Week tradition of carrying a brick all day goes back years, and it’s a relatively harmless (though deeply odd) ritual as far as colleges go. In 2012, another Sydney Uni college, St John’s, suspended 30 students after an O-Week drinking event led to a female student being hospitalised.
If you’re a prospective Sydney Uni student who wants to experience all that a college like St Andrew’s has to offer, including the joy of dragging a brick around all day, getting in is pretty easy. All you have to do is fill out an application form, write a personal statement and attach some references. Oh, and shell out $34,000 for a year’s housing.
The publication yesterday of a new report detailing various instances of sexual assault and hazing rituals at colleges across Australia has reignited the debate about university culture. Last year’s Broderick Report found that one in three women living in Sydney Uni colleges had experienced sexual harassment. Some activists have called for a “wholesale transformation” of university culture.
But there is a bigger question to ask. Why do colleges that cater almost exclusively to the wealthy and are based on a legal and ethical framework from 150 years ago still exist?
Unlike in the United States, where the majority of students experience residential college life at some point, Australian students very rarely live on campus. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, less than 5% of university students live on campus, with the rest living with their parents, partner or in a shared house.
Despite the recent focus on college culture, there actually isn’t a lot of granular data on student demographics. There are aggregate statistics that show, for example, that students are more likely to be male and less likely to speak a language other than English – but these surveys group together students who study at regional campuses like University of New England and University of Wollongong with those living in St Andrew’s and St John’s.
When we know that regional universities have a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds than elite institutions like University of Sydney, University of Adelaide, University of Queensland and University of WA , these aggregate numbers don’t help much. Additionally, the fact that one-year accommodation at the University of New England costs less than $10,000, compared to the $30,000 at most University of Sydney colleges, suggests that we we’re talking about a very different cohort of students.
A study by the University of Sydney, looking specifically at the culture of its colleges, found that the university community was too heavily biased in favor of students from private schools in Sydney.
“Another theme that emerged… in the survey was that some colleges tend to attract a large proportion of students from a relatively small group of Sydney schools, which may impact the ability of those who do. did not attend these schools to fit in “,” according to the study.
“I found out that a lot of people here were from private schools in Sydney and they all had ties and knew each other and so not being from a private school I found it a bit difficult to fit in at first,” one student said.
As someone who has wasted far too much of their university life on student politics, I have been lucky (or unlucky) to travel to most of Australia’s 40 universities. One thing that always struck me was how different college demographics were at different universities.
At major sandstone universities (such as Sydney, Adelaide and UWA), colleges tended to be dominated by local students from local private schools, a result of high tuition fees, an old and static culture and a an application process that encourages students to mention whether their parents attended college.
With a housing affordability crisis squeezing young people, especially in the suburbs adjoining inner-city universities, it’s pretty infuriating to see colleges, sitting on rent-free public land, serving the needs of the children of private schools from wealthy backgrounds.
Why should prime accommodation be reserved for students from Riverview, Sydney Grammar and Scot’s College, who live in the eastern suburbs and north coast, a stone’s throw from the University of Sydney?
Even if you ignore the criticisms of academic culture, on a purely practical level, the current situation is an obscene abuse of resources. These elite colleges are an anachronism. They are the legacy of a time when the university was the exclusive domain of the ruling class.
While university access has improved, the archaic structures that underpin colleges have not improved. In many cases, colleges are still governed by laws written 160 years ago.
If universities and governments agreed, they could rewrite the rules, send rich kids back to their parents’ mansion in the Vaucluse, and prioritize college dorms for students who needed them most. The concept of university housing being made available to those who need it, not those who want to use it to recreate their colonial fantasies, is hardly radical.
Reclaiming colleges for the many, not the few, will not magically make the problems of harassment, aggression, and bullying go away. Universities, college administrators, and students have a lot of work to do to root out these problems — and they’re not just isolated from wealthy colleges.
But there is something particularly toxic in the culture of the most elite institutions. Students who have had the worst experiences these colleges have to offer regularly point to the “private schoolboy” culture of entitlement that drives some of the worst behaviors.
The only college to boycott the Broderick Review was St Paul’s, the oldest, and in some ways the most exclusive, college in Australia. It is also the college most regularly accused of misconduct. Clearly there is a problem where some of these colleges think they are playing by a different set of rules, and that culture seems to filter down to the students.
The question is why have the universities and the government let them off the hook for so long?
There are no good reasons why we should continue to house the descendants of the ruling class in public university colleges, but there is ample evidence to support the idea that we should replace them with students who have actually need housing and support. Let’s do it.
Article image via University of Sydney website