Australia must not pull up the ladder for poorer students

Student income support is increasingly insufficient and in urgent need of reform, says Dawn Freshwater

一月 2, 2020
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Time and nostalgia have a way of casting a romantic glow over difficult situations in the long-distant past. Those of us without the benefit of family money remember fondly, for example, our time as “poor but honest” university students: cutting coupons, shopping at op shops, attending catered events to save money on food and eating far more carbohydrate than is recommended.

But the two-minute noodle narrative has a dark side, which is often overlooked even by those of us who have lived through it. Poverty is always accompanied by exclusion.

Students who are not financially supported by family have to work. They have to spend time at Centrelink, Australia’s social welfare payments agency. They have to spend time finding cheaper options, rather than quicker ones. Their access to technological solutions is limited, and many rely on the availability of computers on campus, instead of being able to study at home.

This means that our disadvantaged students are at a further disadvantage when it comes to obtaining the broad and deep learning they need to prepare them for an uncertain future. They also have less time and energy to participate in extracurricular activities, such as team sports, student politics, internships and volunteering. They cannot shout rounds in the pub or afford gym memberships.

Nor is the narrative of young school-leavers hustling their way through university the only story of student disadvantage and disengagement. Societal, technological and geopolitical changes mean that we are seeing adjustments to attitudes around professional development and upskilling in the context of a changing economy. We are seeing growing numbers of older students with families and existing work commitments, as lightning-paced technological change necessitates constant upskilling. The hard dichotomy between “normal” and “mature-age” students is softening, and notions of full-time versus part-time study are increasingly outdated, too.

While Australia’s student loans system covers tuition fees, it contributes little to living expenses such as rent, food and travel: costs that can be insurmountable for people from less privileged neighbourhoods. Although the existing income support arrangements for students have enabled countless thousands of disadvantaged young Australians to survive their university education, it has become increasingly clear that the system is in urgent need of an overhaul. The cost of living, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, is such that it is no longer possible for most students to get by with a single part-time job: they need more support.

Yet, despite Denise Bradley’s efforts in this area more than a decade ago, in her landmark review of Australian higher education, issues remain as to whether the eligibility requirements, age limits, indexation and payment rates are optimal or fair.

Even students with comparatively wealthy parents may struggle. As Conrad Hogg, the outgoing president of the University of Western Australia’s Student Guild (students’ union) put it at a recent Australian Council of Social Services summit on student income support: “Just because students have parents at a particular income level doesn’t mean that they are being supported by their family.”

It is politically and economically unwise, and ought to be morally unconscionable, to return to a state of being wherein universities are palaces of exclusivity, accessible only to those who can afford them. We should also note that surviving is not thriving. Working two part-time jobs all too often results in students’ falling asleep in lectures (or, worse, skipping them entirely). Temporary hardship is romanticised, but it has an impact on physical, mental and social health that endures for decades.

Student support is not simply about the provision of a small income. There are important wider questions for governments and agencies to address. At what point, for instance, do we realign our ideas about universities to enable a focus on the broad student experience, rather than just work and earning? In what ways do student income support and other government investments incentivise certain behavioural outcomes in all aspects of students’ engagement with the community – not just employment? Are the outcomes we are getting the outcomes we want? And how can Australia holistically approach higher education inclusion in a way that enables students – young and old – to enjoy all that the journey has to offer, for the betterment of society?

Some see excellence and equity as uncomfortable bedfellows. They are not. In a changing economy, the bulwark against an uncertain future is a better-skilled future workforce. Students today should not be seen as a liability, a cost – they are human assets, who will grow and deliver returns long into the future, and they ought to be respected as such.

The University of Western Australia’s mission was articulated in the preamble to our founding act in 1911. It includes the assertion that “it is desirable that special encouragement and assistance should be afforded those who may be hindered in the acquisition of sound knowledge and useful learning by lack of opportunity or means.”

I stand by that century-old mission. To do otherwise would be a foolish and dangerous waste of Australia’s human potential.

Dawn Freshwater is vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia and chair of the Group of Eight.


Print headline: Don’t raise the drawbridge on impoverished students


Reader's comments (1)

The problem in the discussion is that it appears that university students should be given a living allowance as soon as they enroll at their selected university. I was a student whose parents could not afford the fees, but decided that to succeed at University and enjoy life, I needed an income. I became a cleaner at a hospital during the holidays, as well as a car-park attendant on the weekends at the same hospital. Life was not easy for me as it took 10 years to complete my BSc at 3 different Universities in Australia whilst working full-time in the final 7 years. I then completed a BCom and MBA whilst working full-time (all degrees were from UWA). The advantage I had in my learning was that my work experience was enhanced by my studies, and my studies were enhanced through my work experience. I worked for large corporations, but preferred running my own Small Businesses (8 in total) and became a University Lecturer (10 years) and Small Business consultant. My philosophy was based on GOYA (Get Off Your Arse) resulting in my seeking opportunities that others could not visualise - Strategies for more efficient Small Businesses and Importing stock from overseas. I also was a University Lecturer for 10 years and was able to combine my academic knowledge with my Business experience in order to show others the relevance between theory and practice.


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