Student Poverty Levels High19 October 2018
Recent data from Universities Australia, the peak body for Australian tertiary institutions, revealed that one in seven students is regularly unable to afford food and other essentials, with Indigenous students and regional students experiencing the greatest hardship. An Indigenous student reported that financial strain while completing their studies was so extreme that they “don’t eat much anymore”.
Released in August, the data is the result of the 2017 Student Finances Survey, a survey undertaken about every five years by Universities Australia. With the last two national surveys of student financial circumstances commissioned in 2012 and 2006, this year’s data incontrovertibly shows student income remaining relatively stagnant over the last 11 years.
One full-time undergraduate student quoted in the report said they had thought of deferring multiple times “because it was financially becoming too hard.”
Services are just not accessible and fitting work and university together, whilst maintaining even above average mental health is near impossible.”
At least one third of students surveyed reported expenses that exceeded their income. Trends across the last two surveys demonstrate growing stratification in students’ income and expenses, with the divide between students from wealthier backgrounds and those from low socio-economic or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds continuing to widen.
The growing cost of juggling study with basic living allowances is becoming increasingly onerous for many students, and according to the University of Melbourne Student Union’s (UMSU) welfare department, this pressure forces students “across the board” to make significant sacrifices. “The first thing to go is the mental and physical wellbeing of students,” welfare officers Cecilia Widjojo and Michael Aguilera said.
Geng Huang, the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) health and welfare officer agreed. “Students have to sacrifice their studies whenever they are forced to increase work hours just to get by, and with the removal of penalty rates this has only become more difficult.”
UMSU welfare funds a regular food bank service to provide students in need with grocery packs to cook around three meals, however only between 500 and 700 of these are collected each semester across the Burnley, Parkville, and Southbank campuses. Many of the students who collect the packs are regular users of the program, and given the high rates of student need identified in the Universities Australia survey, there may be many more disadvantaged students who fall through the cracks.
“There is a level of awkwardness or shame associated with asking for this kind of support,” said Widjojo and Aguilera, who also cited a dearth of publicity around services as a major obstacle preventing students from accessing support services, whether they are directly through the University or via UMSU.
Students Farrago spoke to provided mixed responses about the helpfulness of UMSU-run financial assistance services, with one undergraduate student, who wished to remain anonymous, saying they “got a cold response from UMSU that implied I needed to be ‘known’ to them as a poor person”.
“I felt I had to ‘prove’ I was deserving … I never came back. It felt like I wasn’t being trusted when I said I needed help,” the student said.
The student also said it was implied that official financial records were necessary in order for them to use the food bank.
Another student credited the food bank services for helping to “keep [them] sane” and re-stock their pantry “when [they] had no money at all”.
The same student cited mental health, work commitments, and Centrelink failures as compounding the stress of their study load. The University financial aid services proved “amazing”, the student said.
“[They] listened to my problems and gave me a same-day loan that let me pay off my money owed [to Centrelink] and have enough left over to feed myself without stress.”
Unlike UMSU or the University’s financial aid division, the GSA stated that they “cannot provide direct financial support for students who are struggling”, but that its weekly barbeques and social events are designed to help ease stress for postgraduate students.
International students make up 45 per cent of the graduate student cohort. With particularly limited work rights, this means international students find balancing study with work especially difficult, Huang said.
Widjojo and Aguilera suggested that postgraduate students have more advantages than undergraduates in balancing work and study, often having more “experience in the workplace and the rental market”.
“For graduate students, it seems that the vulnerability of casual retail, hospitality, and fast food work is not the everyday reality,” they said. Unlike undergraduate students, Widjojo and Aguilera said, postgraduates “are far more concerned with the next step into specialised careers”.
In the Universities Australia survey, close to two thirds of undergraduate students reported annual incomes below the $20,000 poverty line, compared with around half of postgraduate students. However, postgraduate students are not necessarily more financially secure than their undergraduate counterparts. This year’s survey results highlight a significant decrease in international postgraduate students’ median income, from $33,700 in 2012 to $21,900 in 2017.
Perceptions of postgraduate students overall being able to find more secure or better-paid work than undergraduates are contradicted by the 2017 survey data, with median incomes for full-time postgraduate students only slightly higher than full-time undergraduates.
Elaborating on postgraduate student experiences, Huang said,“The average grad student is between 25 and 40 years of age. Many of them have had children, or taken on other family responsibilities.”
Postgraduate students also have greater career expectations and financial pressures than undergraduate students, often owing to having to accommodate study amidst substantial work and unpaid placement hours, the GSA said.
Many survey respondents cited necessary unpaid work as part of their courses as an additional financial burden, with one student commenting that they “can’t work—any spare hour is spent at unpaid internship placements which are necessary for [their] degree”.
“Budgeting at times can become crippling to a person’s wellbeing—by avoiding social activities, training opportunities and simple luxuries like more than toast for dinner,” the respondent said.
Rather than course costs alone preventing students from studying, the growing cost of living, as well as an increasing need to undertake unpaid work whilst studying force students to suffer through their degrees.
UMSU welfare said that “there needs to be a further investment in student services” from both the University and the federal government, calling on the University to allocate more funding to both student services and its Counselling and Psychological Services, as well as fulfilling its duty to “provide a level of workplace literacy to students”.
Widjojo and Aguilera said that the government’s continued campaign of cuts to higher education are intrinsically linked to government indifference to the workplace exploitation disproportionately faced by young people and students.
“For those that are already financially vulnerable, these cuts present further obstacles to gaining education and industry experience.”
The GSA health and welfare office also cited government cuts as particular stressors on postgraduate study, emphasising that many postgraduate courses are ineligible for Commonwealth assistance, and that postgraduate courses are usually significantly more expensive than undergraduate degrees.
Recent federal government policies have “put higher education out of reach for students who aren’t already well- off, which is only going to perpetuate and entrench inequality even further,” Huang said.
If the last decade of student finance surveys confirms anything, it’s that the gap between financially disadvantaged and financially stable students—whatever their course level or load—is continuing to grow much faster than anticipated. While tertiary education is becoming increasingly essential, access to support services and government assistance appears to be less and less able to meet the needs of students.