Below the Breadline: The Truth about Student Poverty

The cliché of the student lifestyle—partying every night, sleeping until noon and living on beer and baked beans—is further from the truth than you might think. The idea of the poor student has become so culturally ingrained that many of us probably enjoy reminiscing about our years of subsisting on two-minute noodles and living in a creature-infested sharehouse; but student poverty is a much more serious and widespread problem than we’d like to believe. In fact, for the majority of undergraduates and postgraduates studying in Australia today, the struggle to make ends meet is taking an increasingly huge toll; and the long-term implications of student poverty are anything but amusing. In 2005, a huge 60% of Australian students lived below the poverty line. In the past decade, the nation’s cost of living has almost doubled; for domestic and international students, many of whom are forced to juggle their studies with part-time or full-time work, meeting basic expenses is fast becoming an impossibility. The problems students face encompass the three major costs of housing, food and transport. According to the National Union of Students (NUS), a shortage of decent rental housing means that one in four students face studying in poverty due to exorbitant housing costs; in 2006, a nationwide survey showed that one in eight students regularly couldn’t afford to eat properly. According to the same study, almost half of undergraduates lived on less than $10,000 a year—less than a third of the current national minimum wage—and found themselves having choose between purchasing course materials such as textbooks and necessities such as food. In a 2012 study, Newcastle University students revealed that they often had $20 or less to live off per day, which is far below the current poverty line. Regardless of whether students have paid employment or other forms of financial support—either from the government or from their educational institution—their living conditions, income and expected academic output are seriously misaligned. For those who have jobs outside of university, the amount of hours they must work in order to support themselves means they end up sacrificing study time; according to findings from a decade of research on the experiences of first-year students in Australia, over half of those surveyed felt that paid work interfered with their academic commitments. However, those with other forms of financial support hardly fare any better—the maximum amount of youth allowance students might be eligible to receive from the government is equal to around half the minimum wage. For those who have won scholarships, which are highly competitive, the terms under which they must then work and study are not exactly conducive to earning a decent living alongside the long hours they must put into their research. Australia’s most common postgraduate scholarship, the Australian Postgraduate Award (APA), gives students just $948.19 per fortnight; or $474.09 per week (again, less than half the weekly income of someone earning the minimum wage). To continue holding the award, students are prohibited from working more than eight hours per week—their only option, it seems, is to live below the breadline. However, the many postgraduates who spend their allotted working hours (inevitably more than eight) tutoring at their university must shoulder an extra burden. Working conditions for casual academic staff are abysmal, despite the fact that these casuals now undertake almost half of all undergraduate teaching in Australian universities—National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) President Jeannie Rea describes this growing reliance on a casual (and thus easily exploitable) workforce as a ‘the dirty secret of Australian higher education’. Casual staff are overworked, under-resourced and expected to put in long hours of unpaid overtime. The more worrying long-term implication of this is how many aspiring academics end up leaving the sector because the financial and emotional toll of their working arrangements and academic pressures becomes too great to bear. Ultimately, this has a social as well as a personal cost. In addition to causing stress and depression and affecting students’ ability to complete their studies, the knock-on effects of student poverty have serious long-term consequences for Australia’s research sector. The expectations of postgraduate students and early career researchers are especially unrealistic: after spending years completing higher research degrees with paltry financial support and poor working conditions, many face a demoralising future of short-term contracts and job insecurity, which could lead to their seeking work in different fields or leaving the country altogether to pursue academic careers. Considering that students in Australia are now paying more than ever for their education and that the Coalition has threatened to increase fees by a huge 25% and reduce enrolments if Abbott wins the next election, it’s clear that the cost of education is entirely too much for too many—financially and emotionally. It’s hard to believe that these stark findings reflect the reality of so many people in a prosperous first-world country with a supposedly robust economy. However, research indicates that Australia has a widening gap between rich and poor, and increasing numbers of young people—particularly those aged between 15 to 24—are unable to cover their living costs or enjoy the benefits of Australia’s current economic health. Age aside, anyone enrolling in tertiary study—whether they’re fresh out of high school or a mature-age student—is likely to be at least partly motivated by the belief that a degree will offer them better employment prospects. However, the situation for many students, who struggle to support themselves while studying and then graduate with thousands of dollars of HECS debt to their name, is sadly no pathway to a financially secure future; it’s also unsustainable, unjust and untenable in a country like Australia. The good news is that spreading awareness of student poverty and taking action to turn things around can help improve the lives of students everywhere. The NUS runs constant campaigns to win fairer deals for students and the NTEU—the only union to solely represent Australian tertiary employees—lobbies for the sector and gives students and academics a voice. In the meantime, MoneyHelp gives online financial advice and counselling for anyone trying to manage their funds and live on a budget. Editex has also joined the fight to end student poverty, and this week launched the Thesis Write-up Scholarship, which will be advertised on the scholarship pages of all Australian university websites. Full details of the scholarship are available on the Editex website at Applications open 1 January and close on 30 June each year. The scholarship will be awarded prior to 31 July. For more information, contact us by email at References

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