Below The Line

15 May 2017

Students from a number of Masters degrees at the University of Melbourne are ineligible for financial support through Centrelink, adding to the financial distress faced by many university students.

Every year, the Department of Social Services (DSS) assesses applications made by higher education providers to register post-graduate courses and approve them eligible for student payments. However, a number of courses did not make the cut this year.

According to the DSS website, a Masters by Coursework program may be approved where the course is the minimum educational requirement, the fastest pathway or the only pathway to gain an entry-level qualification for a profession.

Master degrees including Public Policy and Management, Finance, Economics, Journalism and Marketing Communications do not meet these requirements.

However, other higher education providers have submitted similar courses to the DSS which have been approved for Centrelink payments. RMIT’s Master of Communication and Deakin University’s Master of Commerce are approved for student financial support, whereas their University of Melbourne counterparts are not.

The University of Melbourne Student Union’s (UMSU) Welfare Officer, Ryan Davey, is concerned about the inconsistency.

A Master of Public Policy and Management (MPPM) student himself, Davey had to make a decision about his post-graduate studies based on his eligibility for Centrelink support. He initially enrolled in RMIT’s Master of Public Policy – which is approved for student payments by the DSS.

“For me [not receiving Centrelink] was a big factor in choosing my Master. Without concession, travelling into the city was going to cost me $20 a day, and my Office Bearer pay wasn’t going to be enough, so I enrolled at RMIT,” he said.

Senior Student Advisor of the University of Melbourne’s Campus Community University Services, Roger Deutscher, stated that the University does not decide which courses are approved for student payments.

“Whilst the first criteria, the minimum educational requirement to gain entry to a profession, is a criteria that can apply uniformly across institutions, the other two criteria, the fastest or only pathway to a qualification, will vary considerably between institutions,” he said.

“The University submits all those courses that faculties judge may meet the criteria, but approval or not is a matter for the Department.”

Deutscher also stated that there were early signs Centrelink may approve all Master courses for student payments. However, there has been no movement on the issue in recent times.

The financial strain students face has been a widely debated issue since the announcement of budget cuts to higher education in April 2016. Despite the Turnbull government benching all higher education reforms until 2018, these matters are still pressing for students.

With degrees like the MPPM costing over $25,000 a year, the price of post-graduate study can deter future students. This makes employment increasingly difficult as many employers expect job applicants with multiple qualifications.

Current MPPM student, Conor Serong, began post-graduate study in 2014. While studying his Bachelor of Arts, he had received Youth Allowance and Rent Assistance from Centrelink. It was a shock to him to learn that, after undertaking his Masters, he would no longer have this support.

“I just assumed that my Masters would be eligible, but when I made the claim I was told over the phone there wouldn’t be anything available to me,” he said.

Coming from a rural and low socio-economic background, Serong could not depend on his family for support. Students may be eligible for Commonwealth-supported places (CSP), FEE-HELP and HECS-HELP loans, but the number of Commonwealth-supported places awarded are limited and the debt of the HECS system can be daunting.

“I was offered another course as well…this would have been eligible for Centrelink, but it wasn’t a Commonwealth-supported place, meaning the debt would have been huge”.

As a result, Serong began working upwards of 30 hours per week to pay his bills. This also meant he had to cut back to part-time study.

“I wanted to study a Masters degree specifically for the employability prospects…in the end, I took the MPPM without any Centrelink support,” he said.

Having to study only one or two subjects a semester means that Serong is now two and a half years into a two year degree – still with no end in sight.

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