One in seven students go without food or necessities

Nearly one million Australians are now studying at university, but life is hard for most of them, with one in seven going without food or other necessities because they cannot afford the costs.

To survive, more than 80% of the students have to find paid work and full-time undergraduates spend an average of 12 hours every week away from class, working to earn the money to live.

The latest survey of the nation’s university students and their finances, conducted for Universities Australia, reveals that nearly a third of full-time domestic undergraduates work more than 20 hours a week, while one in 10 are employed for more than 30 hours.

This latter group must struggle to find the time to attend lectures, which adds to their continuing worries about maintaining their enrolments.

Presumably, the only way most manage to keep a job and keep up with the demands of study is because they can access lectures online and maintain contact with their academics.

“Lazy stereotypes would paint a picture of students living the high life – hitting the bars instead of the books,” says Professor Margaret Gardner, chair of Universities Australia and vice-chancellor of Monash University in Melbourne.

“This simply isn’t the reality. Rather than living it up, a lack of money means many students are struggling just to get by.

“It’s the personal accounts of students living in poverty that bring the reality home. Among the scores of data and stories collected by the 2017 Universities Australia Student Finances Survey, ultimately it was their own words that spoke the loudest.”

Gardner quotes one Indigenous student who told the researchers: “I now often eat meals at university, rely on friends to bring food over or pay for the ingredients so I can cook for them. I don’t eat much anymore.”

And that student was not alone, she says. “Indigenous students and those from a disadvantaged or rural background are among those living with the toughest financial situations.

“One in four Indigenous students regularly can’t afford to eat or buy other essentials. And almost one in five of those from the poorest quarter of Australian households are forced to skip meals.”

The survey found that the proportion of students working more than 20 hours a week has increased steadily since earlier surveys were undertaken. As a result, more than a quarter of those studying full-time say they regularly miss classes because of their jobs.

Among undergraduates studying part-time, 36% say they regularly miss classes to go to work, while 52% report that their jobs have other impacts on their studies.

Not surprisingly, a majority of the domestic students surveyed said they were worried about their finances, while a third estimated their expenses were greater than their incomes.

One reason for this is that the average income earned by local students has not increased since 2012 and, as a consequence, the average amount they spend has fallen.

“Thus any improvement in students’ finances is not because students are earning more, but because they are spending less,” the survey report states.

It notes that the median annual income for full-time domestic undergraduate students is AU$18,300 (US$13,000), while the average amount they spend is AU$14,200 (US$10,000).

More than half the domestic undergraduates surveyed said they were constantly worried about their financial situation, with those from poorer families much more likely to be anxious, as were those from regional areas.

Because Australian students take out government loans to cover their enrolment fees, the other debts they incur must come from private sources such as paid work or their parents.

By the time the undergraduates complete their degrees, the average amount they owe the government is AU$38,200, while for full-time postgraduates the median estimate is AU$54,100.

Graduates repay what they owe via the tax system when they find employment and are earning at least AU$52,000 a year.

Foreign students

The survey of student finances found that almost one in two international undergraduates have expenses slightly greater than their incomes: with a median income of AU$19,200 against annual spending of AU$20,000.

But international undergraduates have to pay full fees, which means they either borrow the money from their parents or also must find work. On average, the students who find work are employed for 15 hours a week.

Unlike their local counterparts, however, nine in 10 of the foreign students also rely on the financial support of their families or partners.

That is probably why only about half the international undergraduates say they are worried by their financial situation, compared to the majority of full-time Australians.

In addition, almost 55% of international undergraduates say they have some savings they can draw on in case of serious financial difficulties, with 38% reporting they have had to use their savings during the past year.

Even so, some 14% also say they regularly go without food or other necessities because they can’t afford them.

“Our students should have the basic financial security to thrive at university,” Gardner says.

“University is an enriching experience – it broadens minds, it challenges us, it expands our knowledge and sharpens our skills.

“But it’s hard for a student to make the most of those opportunities when consumed by worry about whether they can afford their next meal or the rent that’s due next week.”