Words by Daniel McLean
I’m sitting in the Art Gallery Café across the table from the University of Adelaide’s Chief Operating Officer, Bruce Lines. “Hindsight’s a wonderful thing,” Bruce says. “If anything like this happened again, we would do it differently.”
Six months earlier, on 28 August 2018, the University announced that it would be sponsoring the Royal Croquet Club (RCC). Under the arrangement, the University would become a major Fringe venue, opening its historical buildings and spacious lawns to the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the RCC for live performances and bars.
After hearing the announcement, the Adelaide University Union (AUU) was shocked. The AUU had “been in no way consulted”, even though the RCC’s presence on campus would inevitably clash with O’Week and the first two weeks of the academic semester.
The current SRC President, Ali Amin, told me that the lack of consultation was unusual. “The University sends big financial decisions to the AUU months beforehand, especially if they affect O’Week,” he said. “That didn’t happen this time. There was zero communication, zero consultation.”
Back in the Art Gallery Café, Bruce Lines says that, if faced with the same decision again, the University would consult with the AUU. He explains why, in this case, the University chose not to consult with the AUU.
“Other Fringe companies might have been interested in sharing or impinging on what the RCC wanted to do, and so we had to be sensitive to the RCC,” he says.
“If we’d involved the AUU or a large number of people, that would have leaked, or potentially leaked, so we made the decision that we needed to deal directly with the RCC until we had got to an outcome that could be supported.”
But the decision not to communicate with students meant that it wasn’t until after the sponsorship had been finalised that the AUU and University students were able to voice any concerns about the event.
It’s not the first time an event such as the RCC has taken place on a University campus. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world, uses the University of Edinburgh’s open spaces and buildings.
“When the RCC approached us, they talked quite a bit about Edinburgh”, says Bruce.
With the popularity of Edinburgh in mind, it made sense for the RCC to use Adelaide’s campus space in a similar way. It was the perfect model, except for one thing.
“Their festival is done during the holidays rather than O’Week and the start of the semester,” Ali pointed out.
The clash between a major arts festival and the opening of the University semester has appeared particularly troubling to student clubs.
In a 2018 survey conducted by the AUU, 78 percent of clubs said that they recruit at least half of their members during O’Week, with almost a third of clubs reporting that they recruit as many as 80 percent of their members then.
Spaces that were reserved for clubs alone during previous O’Weeks will now be occupied by the RCC, jeopardising their capacity to attract new members.
Outside of the lecture theatre, University clubs are a vital organ in student life.
“O’Week is the primary chance to engage with students,” said AUU President Oscar Ong.
“There are no certainties, but what I would predict is that we’re going to have less engagement, less members in the AUU numerically speaking, less club members.
“RCC is sort of a setback to us and one of the things that people are not aware of is the after implications of the RCC.”
One of those implications will be the availability of the Goodman Lawns, Barr Smith Lawns, and Maths Lawns. After previous O’Weeks, the lawns were closed section by section, allowing students to use designated lawn space while the grass elsewhere recovered. But with hundreds of thousands of feet trampling over them in the space of a few weeks, the lawns will be out of action until after April.
Since the initial announcement, the University has worked with the AUU to try to minimise the effect of the RCC’s infrastructure on clubs. As well as sharing the Maths Lawns with the RCC, clubs will now occupy space in Hub Central. On top of that, AUU will be able to run Freshers Week for the first time, in the week after O’Week, to make up for any reduction in recruitment numbers.
But the concerns extend beyond the potential effect on clubs.
David Elliot, a student who created an online petition last November urging the Vice-Chancellor to expel the RCC from university grounds, described the RCC as “a nightclub.”
“You’re going to have substances and intoxicated people roaming the campus at night,” he said.
It’s not the first time that the RCC has been described in this way. In 2017, The Advertiser’s Colin James called the RCC’s incarnation at Victoria Square “a giant nightclub, complete with cover charge, on prime public space.”
Even though Ali said that “the RCC is going to be the best event on campus throughout the entire year,” he pointed out safety was an important issue.
“If you’re going to have thousands of additional drunk people coming to a small venue, naturally it’s going to be more risky,” he said.
“The University is trying to really mitigate that. All it takes is one single incident to destroy this event and cause huge embarrassment and negative press attention for the University.”
While the University can’t eliminate risk, several arrangements are in place to keep students safe.
As well as receiving a security plan from the RCC, which has been endorsed by the campus security team, the University has been working with SAPOL to maximise security for the event. Hub Central will be accessible after 5pm only by using a valid student or staff ID card, with security also monitoring its entrances.
The RCC will be restricted in its operating hours, opening at 5pm on weekdays, when most students and staff members have left the campus.
“We’re trying to have the best of both worlds,” says Bruce, “in that we’ve got our objectives of trying to bring the community on campus, provide an experience to students and staff that other universities don’t offer, and maximise the facilities that we hold on behalf of the public.”
“We’ve also got academic outcomes of students and staff to think about as well. We’re trying to get the right balance. And people will tell us after the event whether we got that right.”
Offering the University’s grounds to the RCC seems like a kind of experiment, a gambit that could work well but could also have a cost. Nobody can really know whether it’s a good thing until after the event, when the grass on the Barr Smith Lawns has been resurrected, and the University and the AUU sit down to weigh their gains, or their losses — hopefully, this time in the same room.