Last year, my university announced a $165 million accommodation deal that would cover 3760 beds. To do so, they struck a honeymoon deal with two big investment firms. The Australian National University would get the pay-check they need to pay off their infrastructure debt, and the investors would get a 30-year lease on the accommodation.
The investors will make money. ANU will make money. The only ones that don’t make money under the agreement are the students.
ANU has flat out refused to let anyone know the details of the agreement between them and their investors. Bruce Hall, the first hall to be affected by the agreement, has had prices increase by almost 10 per cent to $392.05 per week. An ANU spokesperson told me that ANU “will ensure that rents will not exceed 75 per cent of the current market rates for similar accommodation in the Canberra community”. I asked, but they never told me what ‘similar accommodation’ specifically was. Taking them at their best, though, that 75 per cent figure still doesn’t hold up. The median weekly rent for an entire Canberra unit, as opposed to a single dormitory, is $411 – quite clearly above the threshold.
For current ANU students, there is deep uncertainty about how much student accommodation will cost them next year and whether they will be able to afford it. But for prospective students, the danger is even worse. ANU prides itself as being an affordable university for regional students who cannot go to university without paying for accommodation too. It’s cheapest college is just one third of the price of Sydney’s St Paul’s College. But even that college – Burton and Garran Hall – is now being priced by private investors, potentially restricting the poorest students from even going to ANU in the first place.
University is strain enough on low socioeconomic students. People from low SES backgrounds are one-third as likely to attend university as those from high SES backgrounds. Despite the rapid expansion of higher education in Australia since the turn of the century, that figure hasn’t changed for the past 15 years. People in remote communities are 20% less likely to attend university than those in cities. Some students need accommodation out of necessity: such as if they have come to Canberra after living in a remote community, or have come here to escape a tumultuous family life.
As housing becomes increasingly unaffordable for millennials, this issue becomes more consequential. 87 per cent of Gen Yers fear that they won’t be able to ever afford a house. It adds insult to injury for the university sector to pile on during this housing bubble.
ANU is not alone; there have been calls for Sydney University’s elite $600 per week college dorms to be changed into affordable housing. The calls are happening even as the university is spending $2.5 billion on infrastructure, including $70 million on the new Vice-Chancellor’s offices.
Universities are somehow getting away with pricing university accommodation at ridiculous standards and giving the profits to private interests – all the while cutting out poorer, more regional millennials from ever having a chance to go to university.
And I bet there aren’t too many brunch places out in the bush for them to spend their money on otherwise.