Student Poverty Hits Record Highs

A recent report by Universities Australia has found that two thirds of Australian university students live below the poverty line, with financial distress and debt levels on the rise despite already being at the highest ever recorded levels in Australia.

Based on a survey of almost 12,000 students across the university sector, the ‘University Student Finances in 2012’ report found that although more Australians are attending university than at any time in Australian history, two thirds live on an income below $20,000 a year, while shouldering debts which have increased by almost 30 per cent in the past six years. As a result of this financial pressure, many students have been forced to drop out before completing their degrees.

For those able to subsist while studying, the report says half of all students earn less than the financial demands required of them, despite 80 per cent of full-time undergraduates working an average of 16 hours a week, over 30 per cent regularly missing classes due to their jobs, and 17 per cent going without food or other essential items on a regular basis.

The average annual expenditure of students was found to be $37,020, far outstripping the income levels of over two-thirds of university students. Sharp increases in the cost of housing, food and utility bills are cited as a contributing factor.

Due to the mismatch between income and expenditure levels, over half of all students rely on financial support from their families to keep studying. Family support was most commonly identified as being in the form of food, and access to a computer or printer.

In particular, Indigenous students, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, face greater levels of financial stress than their non-indigenous counterparts, with only one-third of Indigenous students receiving some form of support from their parents or partner.

Jade Tyrrell, President of the National Union of Students, told Tharunka the results of this report are “devastating for students”, with the Government risking making it impossible for many students to attend university.

“The problem is that student poverty is treated as a rite of passage. Graduates claim they went through something similar, but the reality is it’s actually substantially worse now than it’s ever been.”

Universities Australia chief, Belinda Robertson, said, “The report clearly shows financial stress on university students is increasing.”

“While the impact of this on dropout rates and future enrolments is unclear, it is of sufficient concern to justify close monitoring — particularly in the context of meeting the government’s goal to have 20 per cent of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds enrolled by 2020.”

Tyrrell and Robertson’s views were echoed by Dr Cassandra Goldie, chief of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), stating that Australia’s education system did not take into account the particular stresses and demands placed on students without significant support networks.

“Our system is designed on the idea that students are able to live at home and are funded by their parents or guardians,” Goldie told ABC News. “That’s clearly not the case for many, many students.”

“When you’ve got two-thirds of them living below the poverty line, you know that the system is broken. We need to have a mature system which enables people to be able to get a better education and not have to live in poverty to do that.”

Tyrrell said it is crucial the Australian age of independence used for determining eligibility for the Youth Allowance be lowered from 22 to 18. At present, in order to be eligible for Youth Allowance before 22, the parental income of applicants must be under $150,000.

“18-year-olds are considered independent in every other way in society,” Tyrrell said. “It’s unfortunate that often the bottom line comes before students, but this needs to change.”

Dr Goldie agreed. “One of the major reasons for student poverty is that the youth allowance, which many students rely on, is $29 a day. Like the unemployment payment, it hasn’t been increased in over two decades. It is clearly not enough for them.”

The Universities Australia report found that only one in five undergraduates apply for Austudy, with almost half of these applications being rejected. Nearly half of full-time undergraduates apply for Youth Allowance, and 67 per cent of these applicants receive either full or partial rates of support.

Media and Communications student at the University of Sydney, Clare Angel-Auld, said the Youth Allowance is not enough to socially include students in their university environment, acting as a barrier to engaging in social activities with friends and student life at university.

“I couldn’t afford to buy any of my textbooks last semester and struggled to finish. Some weeks, rent is more than others, and the only money I got was from Centrelink. Once I’ve paid my rent and bills and groceries, there’s hardly anything left, let alone $500 for textbooks. As well as affecting my grades, it meant I didn’t really have a level of connection with people in my class. They’d all get out their textbooks and I wouldn’t have one. People can tell when you don’t.”

Tess, an Arts/Education student at UNSW, said she had also experienced similar difficulties in social situations. “There’s been a lot of times I’ve gone out with people and I haven’t even been able to have anything to eat because I just couldn’t afford it. One week I had $10 to live on for the week.”

Media student Eleni, 20, told Tharunka rent was a major concern for her. “I have three part-time jobs, and that is on top of university and an internship. One of my jobs will go down to one day a week, and my total income will be ten dollars less than what my rent is. I’m panicking because I might not be able to pay my rent.

24-year-old Psychology student, Artemis, had similar concerns. “For the past 4 years, I have spent around 80 per cent of my income on rent alone, bills not included. So although Centrelink doesn’t allow it, I got a job on top of university, mostly for $10 an hour, cash in hands: no rights, no security … 60-hour weeks just to make ends meet. It’s not reasonable to expect independent students to keep this lifestyle up for three or four years.”

University of Newcastle Communications student, Sally, 18, said she had often risked her health in order to make ends meet.

“There have been times where I’ve gotten so sick simply because I’ve been doing so much work. But I can’t afford not to work and I’ve still turned up. Bosses have had to send me home when I’m sick. It’s just one of those things where you have to work.”

According to Tyrrell, universities are also responsible for providing students with more study support, flexible timetables, online lecture recordings, and fewer penalties for university work affected by students’ jobs.

Tess agreed. “UNSW introduced a new policy in 2013 where they won’t give you authorised timetable clashes for any reason. They don’t take into account work considerations. I understand why, but at the same, students do need to eat, live and have shelter. The fact is that the University doesn’t take students’ needs into consideration.”

“I’m feeling at the moment that UNSW is making it about as hard as it could for me to keep studying,” Eleni said. “The food here is really expensive, and getting here is a nightmare. I don’t get any time during the week to go out with friends, and I’m too tired on weekends because I worked so much during the week.”

 “University lecturers tell us our studies are more important. They’re so strict on us going to university that somehow they don’t realise we have to support ourselves a lot of the time outside of university. And in a city like Sydney, that’s not easy.”

Clare Angel-Auld said the problem is likely to continue. “At the moment we’re two weeks into the semester and I haven’t been to one class because I’ve been working to pay my bills and support myself.”

Tyrrell warned student poverty will only worsen if the Government and universities fail to assist students. “We’re going to see increased dropouts and a dramatic decline in the standard of living for students if no action is taken. The student poverty rate has risen exponentially in the last six years, and there’s every chance it will get worse.”

Ammy Singh