An increasing number of Australian university students are so impoverished they are turning to free food services from their universities and charitable organisations to survive.
Student organisations in several states have begun offering free meals, while the Salvation Army says students caught in a "poverty trap" have been asking for food vouchers and parcels.
A survey of 3,000 La Trobe students four years ago found significant levels of poverty. Almost a third could not afford heating and up to 16 per cent said they often went without food. An increasing number of students find jobs, some resorting to prostitution or work in topless bars.
Federal education department statistics suggest the impact of higher tuition fees and low financial support for students could be driving Australians away from higher education. For the first time in decades, the number of new students enrolling at university fell last year, by more than 5,000 or 2.2 per cent. If enrolment figures for foreign students - which have not yet been released - are excluded, the decline in Australian enrolments would be far greater.
A report by Bob Birrell, director of Monash University's Centre for Urban and Population Research, describes federal assistance for students as miserly. It says only a minority of students receive government help towards living and studying costs and most have to depend on parents, supplemented by part-time work.
The report says the system is biased against young people from moderate-income families, and that the government of prime minister John Howard has tightened access to financial support for students since taking office in 1996.
"There is nothing at all in the government's higher education reforms for the children of the great majority of Australian families on modest incomes," Dr Birrell says.
"It's disturbing that despite the mounting evidence of the seriousness of student poverty, it is not being addressed by the education authorities."