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Tertiary student poverty ignored by policy makers

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A large number of Australian university students are struggling to afford necessities such as food (Screenshot via YouTube)

The upcoming Senate Inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart and related payments is a game-changer and now is the time for students and academics to make their voices heard, writes Len Baglow.

‘Since being enrolled in my current course, I was hungry and did not eat because there wasn’t enough money for food.’

So reported 15 per cent of students in a recent study of financial distress — ‘We Want to Know’.

Extreme student poverty is not new. Since 2006, around one in seven full time, domestic undergraduate students have regularly gone without food or other necessities because of a lack of finances, according to Universities Australia research.

These are not rich students who are temporarily short of cash, but students from poorer backgrounds who are struggling to survive at university. These students have problems with accommodation, transport, food, clothing and even medication. Not surprisingly, these students’ studies are also impacted.

In a large national study of 2,320 social work students, my colleague Susan Gair and I found that nearly two-thirds of full-time students reported not having enough money for all recommended texts or educational resources. Half reported being overtired from long working hours in paid employment, with nearly four in ten reporting the need to skip classes in order to attend paid employment. Additionally, around a quarter needed to defer a course or reduce their study load in order to work.

This problem of student poverty is quite public. Most universities today offer cheap or subsidised meals for students. Academics commonly lament students spending more time in paid employment and less time on their studies.

Why then is student poverty not getting public policy traction?

Financially insecure students don’t have the time or energy to campaign for more financial support from the Government. Additionally, most students from disadvantaged backgrounds feel privileged to be at university. Even if the playing field is sloped, they are grateful to be on the field at all. Finally, there is stigma attached to being poor. Students desire to fit in and not be stigmatised.

At the university level, the corporatisation of universities and reduced public funding has led to larger class sizes, less autonomy for junior staff and increasing casualisation of the workforce. Academics often don’t have the time to engage meaningfully with students. Hence, poverty is often regarded as an individual student attribute, rather than a system problem.

However, the deeper problem is that equity in tertiary education has fallen off the Federal Government’s policy agenda. Back in 1988, John Dawkins claimed (p.54):

‘The adequacy of income support schemes (Abstudy and Austudy) is central to any consideration of broadening access to higher education.’

Since then, the comparative rates of income support for students have fallen. Austudy and Youth Allowance for students are now paid at just 55 per cent of the Aged Pension — even less than the grossly inadequate Newstart Allowance.

While conservative parties have rarely been in favour of educating those who are disadvantaged, it seems counterintuitive for the Labor Party to have ignored this demographic. During the last election, Bill Shorten, former leader of the ALP, spoke of how his mother was disadvantaged as a university student and how poverty wastes opportunity. His mother presumably first attended university in the 1950s, yet children from disadvantaged families at university today experience similar problems.

Len Baglow is a policy advocate, researcher and social worker based in Canberra. 

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Tertiary student poverty ignored by policy makers

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