Neunion House

16 May 2015

The future of Union House is unclear due to a dramatic infrastructural shift of University services across campus. The change will mean services for students are housed in a defined ‘student precinct’ on the corner of Grattan and Swanston Streets. The University-led plan for a student precinct has prompted the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) to evaluate the needs of future students and office-bearers.

For UMSU and the students it represents, the current facilities in Union House are outdated and impractical to access. The current structure of the building makes it difficult for UMSU to upgrade technology and many areas in the building have inadequate ventilation, heating and cooling. Furthermore, the risk of exposure to asbestos, though not an immediate issue, prevents the drilling and renovation of the building.

In an open forum on 22 April, UMSU gave students the opportunity to ask questions about the relocation of services and clear up any rumours circulating throughout the University.

UMSU President Rachel Withers, who moderated the forum, reported that the Union House building will remain in its current form until at least 2018 due to food and retail leasing obligations. It is proposed that UMSU will progressively move to a new site at the corner of Swanston and Grattan Street in the new ‘student precinct’. The proposed precinct will involve the 757 Swanston, Frank Tate, John Smyth, and 1888 buildings.

Although many proposals are still up in the air, the University and UMSU have noted that there won’t be any situation in which UMSU doesn’t have accommodation in a building on campus.

It was confirmed at the forum that the first floor of the 757 Swanston building will be home to the multi-faculty student centre. UMSU, along with many professional staff, have frequently expressed concern over the proposed relocation of student services.

They believe that a convergence of student centres into one ‘hub’ could be inefficient. Moreover, the proposals may not provide a solution to the long queuing that currently occurs in the student centre system. The University hopes that by carrying out the relocation, most student enquiries will be handled online or through the 13MELB phone service.

Regardless of the proposed changes, Withers has stressed that she and Graduate Student Association president Steve Brown will continue to emphasise the growing needs of students at the University through the special Student Precinct Steering Group.

“This project expressly has the intention of improving the student experience. This means our new location should be better in theory. And if that’s not the case, we will be digging our heels in within the Steering Group,” said Withers at the forum.

In February, at the time of the first Steering Group meeting, UMSU tabled a list of needs on behalf of the student body. The document emphasises the growing number of students participating in student union activities, such as clubs and volunteering, to justify an increased allocation of space. The document also requests appropriate facilities for new initiatives such as the recently created radio station The Fodder.

Members of the Steering Group have welcomed input from students but have highlighted that the discussions are in “early days”.

“We don’t have answers now deliberately because we haven’t done the work, which includes talking to [students] about priorities and importance and those kinds of things,” said Elizabeth Capp, director of Students and Equity.

The Book Co-op, Financial Aid, Health & Wellbeing, Melbourne Global Mobility and other student services will also occupy the precinct. The Uni is considering spreading food vendors throughout the campus, after engaging food consultancy Brain & Poulter.

Challenges have arisen regarding the relocation of some services. Facilities such as Counselling and Psychological Services, the Wom*ns Room and the Queer Space would need to be placed in an area which ensures security and confidentiality.

Questions have also emerged over where North Court and the two theatres would be relocated without having to sacrifice space. Withers mentioned she saw potential in relocating North Court to the area behind the Frank Tate building.

Information on the development of the student precinct will be regularly supplied through UMSU and University channels. Nevertheless, UMSU is looking to solicit feedback and comments from students throughout the process.

Photo Credit: University of Melbourne Archives

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