Students ‘dropping too many subjects’ in favour of paid work

Demands to accommodate price spikes and satisfy business needs are putting students’ progress at risk, summit hears

August 18, 2022

Students in antipodean universities are reducing their study load, as inflationary pressures and demanding bosses force them to prioritise work over education.

Vice-chancellors have warned that overworked domestic students risk failing subjects, potentially adding years to their degrees and multiplying their tuition fee debts.

The problem is arguably worse for international students after the former federal government removed the 40-hour fortnightly cap on paid employment – an ostensibly temporary arrangement that has not been reversed.

Swinburne University vice-chancellor Pascale Quester said this put students from low-income countries in an invidious position. “Their capacity to earn money and send it back home must be, from their point of view, a moral obligation towards their families,” Professor Quester told THE Campus Live ANZ at Victoria University.

“But the reality is they don’t progress, some of them, and if they don’t progress, they [can] lose their scholarship.”

Another temporary pandemic measure has eased a requirement for international students to undertake at least 75 per cent of a full-time study load every semester.

With that rule in abeyance, but students still obliged to finish their degrees within set periods, some take few subjects for most of their degrees and try to cram the rest into the last term or two – a “crazy hockey stick” pattern of study which courts disaster, Professor Quester said. “They get to the point where it’s going to be impossible for them to do 10 courses in the last semester.”

Professor Quester said business lobby interests were driving students’ behaviour. “That’s not why they came. They came to be students. If they fail, it’s a lot of money.”

Australian students faced a similar quandary, as bosses battled staff shortages. “Their employers are putting pressure on them, saying: ‘Can’t you do another shift?’”

Professor Quester said it was desirable for students to “connect to the world of work”, but not at any price. “If they fail a unit, they add [to] the debt and then they have to repeat.”

University of Wollongong vice-chancellor Patricia Davidson said research into nursing students had found that their grades suffered if they worked too many hours, even if they were working in areas related to nursing.

Professor Davidson said inflation had also affected study patterns, with many regional students unable to afford the petrol to drive to campus. “The pandemic…has laid open the cracks,” she told the summit. “What concerns me is the social inequality.”

University of Auckland vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater said coronavirus had been particularly tough on underprivileged families living in crowded households far from the city, where transport was unreliable. “It was very easy for those students…just to go to work and to pause their studies. Of course, the difficulty [is] then getting them back into the university.”

She said Covid had impeded students’ access not only to campus but also to the communities that encouraged them to maintain their studies. “We’ve still got quite a lot of work to do in addressing some of those issues.”

Professor Freshwater said university leaders had “allowed higher education to be hijacked” by other agendas. “We have to take some responsibility for that. What we give students is choice. We provide choices in life that people would never have had. We need to wrestle some of that autonomy back.”

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