Autumn 2018

Student poverty: a wall on the bridge of higher education

As a parent, one of the bridges to a better life for our children that we try to build is the ‘good education’ bridge. We know that a good education has many benefits. It exposes the child to the wider, wonderful world beyond our immediate circle. It builds social, intellectual and practical skills beyond what we could teach in the family. Importantly, it also increases the chances of our child being able to find work that is personally and financially rewarding.

Close up of stone wall. Centre stone has 'A. A. 1882' scratched into it.

Many readers of The Record will remember a time when the last tier of education, a university education, was reserved only for the rich. Poor and middle-income families simply could not afford to pay university fees and scholarships were only available to the few. This changed in 1974 when university fees were abolished. While fees have since been reintroduced, there is now a low interest loan system, so fees do not have to be paid upfront. As a result, today many more students from middle and lower-income families can access higher education.

However, the system is still biased in favour of students from well-off families, and this bias has been increasing over the last 20 years. For the last 10 years, enrolments of students from low-income families have been about 60 per cent of what you would expect if access to university was truly fair. Four-year completion rates for students from low-income families declined from 45 per cent to 41 per cent between 2005 and 2014.

If students don’t have to pay upfront fees, what are the walls that are preventing them from enrolling in and achieving at university? The major wall is that students simply do not receive enough money to live on for four years while completing a course. This is compounded by the fact that many poorer students can’t live at home with parents because of family disruption, or the need to be nearer the university or because they are older. Right now, the major income support payments for students are about 55 per cent of the aged pension. It is difficult enough living on the aged pension—imagine trying to survive on half that amount for four years!

The consequences for many students for their lives and studies are devastating. A Universities Australia study found that some 18 per cent of undergraduate students claimed to regularly go without necessities such as food. My own research in 2015 with 2320 social work students has convinced me of the profound effects poverty is having on students’ lives.* Around a third of the students had at various times insufficient money to pay for food, clothing, transport or medication, and over half had insufficient to pay for education resources.

Many of the students gave eloquent descriptions of their situation:

In the past when I worked part-time and received Austudy/Youth Allowance I had very little money and was rarely able to purchase textbooks or readers. I also have a chronic disease which requires a large amount of medication, which I have had to stop taking due to having insufficient money. 

I have struggled financially throughout my entire degree. Several times I have missed out on certain things or not bought certain things due to finances. At times I have been incredibly ill and have not been able to afford a doctor’s appointment or medication, and have still been required to work to sustain an income.

Strangely, this poverty has largely been ignored. There are several powerful reasons for this. First, there is the widespread perception that university is still only for the rich and therefore poverty experienced by students isn’t real poverty, but rich students complaining about a temporary inconvenience.

Secondly, the corporatisation of universities has over time meant their interest has turned to profitability rather than ensuring all students are well educated. Peter Shergold, the chancellor of Western Sydney University, claimed recently that there is no crisis in the university sector because the completion rate for students of 66 per cent has been constant for many years. Certainly, from the universities’ economic perspective this is probably correct. They can function quite well, especially if they top-up with fees from foreign students. But what of the 34 per cent of students that don’t complete? For students who have struggled to get to university in the first place, having to drop out or defer when they don’t want to is indeed a crisis. Shergold argues that the decision to withdraw from study is largely a matter of personal judgement and one of the reasons he gives is ‘an inability to overcome financial pressures’. Not having enough money to live on is not a personal judgement; it reflects a structural problem—that student payments are simply too low. Universities evade their responsibility to campaign on behalf of students for higher levels of student payments by turning the poverty of students into a personal matter for students to overcome.

Finally, the poverty among the most affected students is making it difficult for them to organise for change. While trying to keep up with the hours of study required, they are working long hours in paid employment just to stay afloat financially. Student political bodies have focussed on increases in the HECs debt, which, while a problem, is not as significant a problem as low levels of student payments for poor students trying to survive. Also, for many students there is a stigma attached to being poor. For students entering a new environment, there is often a desperate need to fit in, and so poverty is not mentioned. Even if students do mention it, there is little that can effectively be done to help. Counselling and mentoring can only help so much if you don’t have enough money for food, medicine or your accommodation.

While there have been some St Vincent de Paul Society conferences and agencies who have worked with students experiencing poverty, it has not been a strong focus. I would like to challenge all readers to ask themselves, ‘Is there more that we could be doing?’ Together, how can we tear down the walls that prevent poor students successfully crossing the bridge of higher education?


*This research was part of a joint project between the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) and James Cook University. A summary can be viewed on the AASW website at https://www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/8772.


Len Baglow is Policy and Media Advisor, St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.

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