What it's like to be a student on the poverty line

One of my memories as a child was walking through the University of Adelaide with my family on open day.

It may have been 10 or so years too early to explore my degree options, but I remember the thousands of excited secondary students seeking university degrees and a brighter future.

We were sitting down at the back of campus, overlooking Adelaide’s River Torrens and eating fairy floss when I asked my parents if I’d be able to study at university one day.

They told me we lived in Australia, a country full of opportunities they never had overseas when they were younger.

“There are educational opportunities for all Australians who are willing to work hard for them,” they said.

My parents’ comments haven’t aged very well. The 2017 Universities Australia Student Finances Survey of more than 18,500 students highlights just how outdated these comments are.

One in seven students regularly forfeits food to study, while one in 10 defer because they can’t meet their living costs.

One in three regularly missed university lectures or classes because they have to work. And only 35% of students who work believe their work and study balance is actually sustainable.

While the findings make headlines and come as a shock to many, they aren’t much of a surprise for students.

They validate the financial hardship that thousands upon thousands of Australian students experience every day, in what seems to be a perpetual war on young people.

Students face a housing market that makes it increasingly difficult to maintain financial stability and secure a first home. With access to affordable housing now almost a fictional fairy tale, many of us have adopted a ‘You just take it’ mentality.

Every student has heard their fair share of nightmare accommodation stories. Many of us have experienced them first hand.

In my own degree, I had to be on campus nine to five, Monday to Friday. That left very few hours to work. The extra money I received for working weeknights and weekends was crucial.

But the weeks where I had to miss a weekend shift were the weeks I went hungry.

The penalty rates [we received for working outside normal hours] which we disproportionately relied on, have now also been gutted, forcing us to work longer for less, in an increasingly casualised and insecure workforce.

Losing your only source of income while preparing for exams, paying rent and putting food on the table is impossible for many students. ‘Couch surfing’, living on campus and skipping meals has become normal experience for many.

It’s ironic really. Australians are accessing higher education to open up opportunities but are often dragged below the poverty line in the process.

I enrolled at university to learn how to think critically, to become an active contributor to society and to learn how to live a fulfilling life.

Unfortunately, the current dynamics mean that accessing university can be contingent on where you live, locking many Australians out of a lifetime of opportunities.

Universities are essential in shaping a fairer and socially inclusive society that improves the lives of all Australians.

So why is it that, in 2018, a student’s bank balance determines their access to higher education?

Mark Pace is president of the National Union of Students. He is undertaking a bachelor degree in mathematical studies at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

This article was originally published in Universities Australia’s quarterly newsletter, HIGHER ED.ITION.


Yep, it creates a perpetual cycle of disadvantage that no university is doing anything proper about aside from mere virtue signalling.

Christopher MacHurambe on the University World News Facebook page