Melbourne readers will probably have heard of a long-running occupation by squatters of Melbourne University-owned terrace houses in Carlton (disclosure: some of my colleagues have been involved in this issue, but I have not). The squatters call themselves the Student Housing Action Collective, and have rested their case for staying partly on the ‘homelessness’ caused by a very tight inner Melbourne rental market.
What’s interesting about this case, I think, are the assumptions it reveals about the relationship between universities and their students. Legally, this looks like a straightforward trespass case. Many of us would like to live in a Faraday St terrace house, but none of us have the right to do so without the landlord’s permission, and we would quickly be thrown out if we tried to move in. But in this case, the squatting has dragged on for many months.
Every party to this dispute has been acting as if the normal rules do not apply. The squatter-activists (the squativists?) correctly judged that the University would not just throw them out. The University has been negotiating with the squatters despite its strong legal case against them. The media has been reporting the story as if the squatters have a case for staying.
In an Age op-ed this morning, housing lawyer Chris Povey put his finger on the underlying assumption:
James Field of SHAC … claimed that the premises had been abandoned for three years and said that the university had moral responsibility to assist homeless students.
The notion of the University of Melbourne’s “moral responsibility” merits further consideration. As a pre-eminent institution that is in the business of educating Australia’s young people, the University of Melbourne also has an obligation to safeguard the welfare of its students.
What this is picking up on, I think, is some residual notion of the university as a community with obligations beyond the strictly educational. This idea is strongest in the United States, where there is a belief that universities should be shaping character as well as adding credentials. In the US, living on campus is the norm especially in the early years of study, creating the physical aspect of community.
By contrast, while there is some residential accommodation at most Australian universities, they have long been principally degree factories serving commuter students. Far from shaping their students’ characters, Australian academics struggle to even remember their students’ names.
In purely practical terms, universities barely have the resources to educate their students properly, let alone deal with their other needs. But they persist with the idea of a broader responsibility in their claims, for example, that they need compulsory amenities fees to pay for services like childcare and counselling. Childless and mentally healthy students should pay for these needs of other members of their university ‘community’. It is these notions that the squatters are at least implicitly drawing on to press their case.
Personally, I’m inclined to Stanley Fish’s view that universities should focus on their academic mission, and that if university staff want to save the world they should do so on their own time (and with their own money). But the alternative view is strong enough that though the Faraday St squatters will eventually go, similar cases will occur in future.
Update 14/1: The law finally prevails.