“There wasn’t much to learn there besides how to fold sodden coasters into origami genitalia,” comedian and broadcaster Dom Knight mused in his 2010 novel, Comrades.
“But the average Sydney Arts graduate spent far more time at Manning Bar than they ever did in a lecture theatre.”
Since its very inception, the University of Sydney institution — renowned as a breeding ground for aspiring politicians and creatives — has formed the social fabric of campus life.
@domknight tweet: Very sad that Manning Bar is closing during the day.
A place where, as one former student recalled, careers were launched and friendships forged over a beer — or 10.
But, in the face of waning numbers and mounting costs, the bar has ceased daytime trading.
While Manning is a Sydney institution, the changing role of the university bar is, in many ways, symptomatic of the changing face of student culture across Australia.
As students return to class this month for the start of a new university year, just as generations did before them, how is the campus experience changing?
Far from the carefree ethos from which the Manning Bar was born, modern students are navigating a nexus of technological changes and financial and social pressures.
‘Going to bars was how you met people’
“I think that part of the culture of uni life belonged to eras past,” Claire remarks, reflecting on her former hangout’s “grungy” milieu of the mid-90s.
“In that time, students got really involved in uni life.”
The University of Sydney alumni, who graduated in 1997, doesn’t mince words — Manning Bar was the place to be (if only because there were far fewer options).
It was an incubator for the next generation of politicians and layabouts, helped catapult the likes of Tom Gleeson, Charles Firth and The Jezabels into the national consciousness, and was renowned as a place where students would meet to strategise — or simply shoot the shit.
“Back then, joining clubs or going to bars was how you met people because there was no social media,” she says.
“A friend of mine who I went to school with and who was at USYD at the same time told me about a mutual friend studying in the US and how she used this thing called ’email’. I remember going, ‘Oh ok, that’s weird’.”
The fruition of the internet, and its role in this cultural shift, has been well-documented.
Students are spending less time on campus than in years past, and are less socially engaged, opting to use the internet or study alone.
“I think the technology is facilitating social interactions that look very different to what they have in the past, and that has drastically changed the dynamic of what it means to be social,” says Jason Lodge, an associate professor at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation.
“We socialise in different ways. So the idea that you live on or next to campus and spend your entire waking existence on campus in some ways is not what we’re doing anymore.”
‘Students increasingly have complex and busy lives’
While studies have shown students are forging fewer close friendships at university, Professor Lodge notes that social media has made it easier than ever to retain existing friendships (“They don’t feel as much need, perhaps, to make friendships with the peers they’re studying with”).
At the same time, the numbers of hours students spend in paid employment have increased dramatically in recent decades, from 8 per cent in 1994 to 18 per cent in 2014.
The real cost of being a university student
University life has always been somewhat synonymous with poverty. But students and social workers say things have gotten much worse, forcing some to abandon their studies.
“Because we do have a much wider student body going to university, they need to balance a whole bunch of things in their life, like caring duties, work and social life,” Professor Lodge says.
“So while some of those things were no doubt there before, a lot of these things are placing additional pressure on students to make strategic decisions on how best to spend their time.”
The very concept of the “typical” university student in Australia has also changed, as increasing numbers of international students join the fray.
The gradual move away from the physical campus is a “problem that is Australia wide”, adds Natalie Skead, dean of the University of Western Australia’s Law School.
“Anecdotally, there’s been concerns around this for several years now [about students not attending lectures], and often that conversation was accompanied by a very [unfavourable] narrative,” says Professor Skead.
“[The narrative was] they were lazy, disengaged, they don’t have their priorities straight.”
To test the theory, the law school conducted a large-scale study into lecture attendance, counting student numbers across 16 different subjects, and found attendance rates averaged just 38 per cent of total enrolments across the semester.
But far from being uninterested or irresponsible, researchers found students were making “very informed, carefully considered decisions”.
“Generally, what is clear, is that students increasingly have complex and busy lives,” Professor Skead says.
“Higher education is expensive, so many of them are having to work to support themselves through university.
“They’re still working very, very hard and still very engaged with their studies, but they’re doing it a different way.”
‘Technology is driving a lot of this’
While these competing pressures may have changed the on-campus experience, that’s not to say it has met its demise.
In fact, despite dwindling numbers at hangouts like Manning Bar, social hubs still can bring students together.
In a study analysing thousands of anonymised records gathered by campus societies, researchers from the University of Sydney were able to create a heat map around how and where students socialise.
And while they found that students do tend to form cliques, they also look for opportunities to come together.
“In terms of membership, we see there are students who are politically interested in certain issues, or vegan and vegetarian clusters of students, for example,” says Petr Matous, who led the study.
“In the middle of that … there seems to be this generic society that most people can relate to in between all these more polarising cliques,” Dr Matous says.
There is also a much more “varied diet” of social activities at universities, Professor Lodge adds, “and technology has played a big role in changing those dynamics”.
“It’s much easier to find other groups of people who do specific interests and engage in that,” he says.
“You’re not tied to geographic location as much as you were in the past. So I think technology is driving a lot of this.”
As for Claire, she has no doubt the culture of university life has “changed irrevocably”.
“But I’m glad to have experienced it — I reckon it was probably even better in the 70s and 80s.”