Those who live in on-campus accommodation here at Monash are often the first to extol the virtues of the residences, praising the residences, the community, and the ease of access to general university life. Such praise is not unwarranted, demonstrated by the continued willingness of residents to return for a second year. However, lurking behind these public affirmations of enjoying where they live are a number of systemic issues plaguing the residential community: externally, students living in on-campus accommodation are disproportionately underrepresented in the broader social sphere of Monash, while within the residential bubble, the student voice is largely non-existent, with decisions mandated from above. Such decisions often just seem to exist for liability purposes or ‘checking a box’. These problems, and make no mistake, they are problems, stem from the approach taken by Monash Residential Services (MRS), the managing body of on-campus accommodation. The approach taken is fundamentally based on liability and public image, leading to a system in which the symptoms of problems are addressed through rules and punishment, while the root causes of these problems are ignored.
Day students and residential students largely self-segregate, almost as if it would be taboo to mingle. Indeed, there is little incentive for the vast majority of residents to engage in the broader Monash community. Why would you? You can go home between classes. You live with your friends. Your entire life is conveniently located within a five minute walk – a luxury most students certainly don’t have. This so-called luxury though, perpetuates a cycle: many residents live on campus for two years and then move out to a share house with two or three friends who they lived with. But then what? An extraordinary number of people end up feeling lost or ostracised. The entire social culture of residential halls is predicated on the fact that you live with so many people that someone is always available to do something.
There exist a number of programs at Monash that are designed to involve students from even before day one, such as MSA Orientation Camps & Events (formerly Host Scheme). In theory, these programs make perfect sense for residents. An example: Orientation Camps & Events traditionally runs a party on the Monday of Orientation Week. In 2016, and presumably in the preceding years, busses were provided for residents to attend the event, held in the city. Residents were not only able to attend but encouraged. Events such as this are fundamental to recognising the existence of a university community that is greater than what one is initially exposed to upon moving to Monash. Beginning in 2017, these busses were no longer provided, in line with MRS’ increasingly alcohol-adverse policies. There is a significant effort to schedule other events on that night in an effort to dissuade residents from attending. By and large, these strategies succeed. Monash Abroad events that are aimed at exchanges, of which a significant number live in on-campus accommodation, are more-or-less expected to be dry events due to the attendee’s MRS affiliations.
Residential communities are discouraged from participating in the greater community in other ways. Initially, many societies of residential halls were affiliated with Clubs & Societies (C&S), a subdivision of the MSA dedicated to supporting various interest groups and communities. This confers a number of advantages such as additional funding, networking opportunities, easier access to venues and organisations, and event insurance. C&S is an extensive network of a wide range of communities, enabling social interaction in a manner that no other program quite matches. Through the mistakes of various students throughout the years, these residential societies were gradually deregistered (deservedly so). However, upon deregistration, the mandate from MRS was clear: you are explicitly not allowed to re-register. As of the end of 2018, the final three were effectively disbanded by MRS. The reason for such a policy is allegedly equity based.
Such a division between residential students and day students is in fact beneficial for the public image of Monash University, and is closely tied to their alcohol-adverse policy. Residential societies find it relatively easy to run-on campus events, but incredibly difficult to run off-campus ones. This is no accident. An off-campus event is simply more likely for an incident to occur in the public eye, negatively affecting the Monash brand. A drinking event at Sir John’s can be closely monitored by security; the event is out of the public eye and therefore does not present a high likelihood of a public incident.
Focusing inwards to the internal dynamics of MRS, things tend to exist in one of two categories: ineffectual, counterintuitive, and related to public image; or simply checking a box.
In the first category exists the aforementioned alcohol-adverse attitude of MRS which allegedly exists for the benefit of all residents. Drinking games are banned, even in designated acceptable drinking areas, at threat of a formal warning, which are the basis of a three-strike policy. Excessive alcohol consumption is stated as grounds for a formal warning. At social events, residents are allowed a maximum of two cans of alcohol, to be tracked and handed out to you by staff members, or perhaps a Residential Advisor (RA).
While seemingly innocuous and even perhaps reasonable, such measures are ultimately counterproductive, defeating the purpose of the MRS Alcohol Policy. Rather than treat the root cause of binge drinking, which is a cultural issue, such measures deal with the symptoms of it, serving only to punish those who get caught. Drinking games are driven behind closed doors, leading to excessive consumption in unsafe environments in a clear parallel to the various no tolerance policies attempted in modern history; notable examples of such include The War on Drugs, abstinence-only education, and most glaringly, Prohibition. These, of course, were all wildly successful.
Residents who are so drunk that they pass out, or potentially even need medical attention, are often instead put to bed and looked after by their intoxicated friends for fear of a potential formal warning. This is in stark contrast to the current approach taken by emergency services regarding drug overdose victims, who are not punished for seeking medical treatment. This begs the question: why is the policy for residents so vastly different? The answer is that such a policy allows MRS to more easily evict those residents who have genuine substance abuse problems as they are the most likely to generate negative press. Rather than attempting to step up and address the enormous cultural issue of binge drinking, the approach taken by MRS is to rid themselves of those most at risk, and consider the problem resolved.
A prime example of MRS simply checking boxes are the increasingly strict rules applied to residential societies and the continued MRS support of ineffective tokenistic organisations. Mentioned earlier, due to their C&S affiliations, societies used to be endowed with a measure of self-determination, throwing events by students, for students. In recent years, societies have either lapsed and unintentionally fallen under the wing of MRS authority, or have forcibly been brought in. Existing under MRS, all society expenditure is at the discretion of the College Head (the staff member ultimately responsible for an individual hall). Therefore, all decisions made by the student societies must be in line with MRS policy and approved by the College Head, effectively making societies extensions of MRS’s will. Societies have regressed from autonomous bodies, to figureheads who fruitlessly attempt to align the wants and needs of residents with out of touch MRS policies.
Monash Residential Services consistently promotes White Ribbon, an organisation whose purpose is to address male violence against women through the wearing of white ribbons. MRS hosts White Ribbon dinners, inviting select students along to be White Ribbon ambassadors. There are brunches and morning teas in support of the organisation. On paper, it is admirable. In reality, White Ribbon, despite its important purpose, is a flawed organisation. It does nothing to address the true roots of the issue of male violence against women in favour of virtue signalling, allowing men to feel good about their support of the cause without having to take any action or even engage in self-introspection. In 2018, White Ribbon removed its support of women’s reproductive rights from its website, only reinstating it due to overwhelming public backlash. In 2015, A psychiatrist aligned with White Ribbon, Tanveer Ahmed, excused male violence against women due to ‘male disempowerment’. Rather than immediately disavowing Ahmed, White Ribbon allowed him to stay on as an ambassador until he stepped down.
Looking through this lens, it is clear that MRS supports White Ribbon not due to a genuine desire to enact change, but rather because it allows them to demonstrate their support an end to violence against women in a public image friendly, non-controversial, and risk adverse manner. Organisations focusing on sexual assault and violence against women, such as the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA) and End Rape On Campus (EROC), are much more impactful due to their results-based approach. Alternatively, MRS could support organisations such as Tomorrow Man, who take a results-based focus on the impact of toxic masculinity. Supporting an organisation that simply encourages men to wear a ribbon isn’t enough to have a genuine stance on violence against women.
Considering the above, one can only come to the cynical, but sad, conclusion that MRS exists only as an institution designed to mass accommodate students in an efficient manner, enabling the money-making objective of the university. While ultimately Monash University is a business and has an obligation to act as one, it is disappointing that in an environment where real, tangible change could be enacted, the approach taken is to instead smother student engagement and leadership and offer only token support for major cultural issues. A student voice in the decision-making process of MRS would go a long way in addressing some of these systemic flaws. Unfortunately, this alone would not be enough; what is likely required is a systemic pivot in focus away from public image, and instead towards a genuine interest in enabling residents to both engage with university life outside of the residential bubble, as well as enact real change on pressing social issues.