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Do you come from the land down under? Australian students under pressure

Coming in at number ten of the official ‘Move to Australia’ top ten reasons to move there is ‘Great opportunities for study’. But recent surveys of student finance and problems with food security and accommodation tell a very different story for Australia’s students. The shocking results might seem a long way from the UK situation; but there are parallels. We don’t have equivalent data about this aspect of the ‘student experience’ so it remains largely hidden. It is time that we looked more closely at the predicament of many of our students. Apart from the UK perhaps harbouring many more privileged families, Australia is not so different for the rest.

The release of a student survey report from The Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia this week brought into sharp focus the challenges that Australian University students face. It came to the attention of those in the UK through a report by Times Higher Education, ‘Study or work? Students struggling either way’, that highlighted the impact of housing and food costs on students’ studies. This relatively low key media coverage might lead some to dismiss the problem as one that is remote and a long way off. But being far way away doesn’t always make it small. The report itself is alarming and has profound implications for students in similar circumstances in the UK. It comes in the wake of an earlier and larger Australia-wide study ‘The 2017 Universities Australia Student Finances Survey’ that set alarm bells ringing when it was published last August. This report was being considered coincidently by TEFS by way of comparison to the UK situation. Now there is no doubt that the recent Swinburn survey should be considered by all UK universities in the light of its recommendations.

The link between poverty and stress at university.

Swinburn University and Universities Australia are to be congratulated for their openness in how they have reported the financial pressures on their students. Both surveys illuminate the extent of students working whilst at Australian universities. The Swinburn Survey of 1,231 students, ‘We Want to Know: Financial Stress, Accommodation Insecurity and Food Insecurity in Undergraduate Students’ reveals that 64% had a job while studying. But worse is that 20.9% had no work but “needed to earn money” and only 7.2% did not need to earn money. Most of those working earned less than A$20,000 per year and 51% were in receipt of state benefits such as the Youth Allowance. These are means tested allowances for all young people from low income families. The maximum allowance is A$150 per week if living at home and A$227 per week if living away from home. However, most get much less or nothing and resort to seeking jobs. Despite this, many are well below the poverty line in Australia as defined by the OECD earlier this year. The result is that the survey shows considerable stress put upon most of its students due to financial pressures. The details are shocking and should provoke a closer look here. For example, 26% have suffered very high psychological distress with 20% indicating that they have a diagnosed mental health condition. With 14.9% indicating they had been homeless at some stage, at the time of the survey 2% (23) were actually homeless. The list of problems jumps out of the pages. Thirty-seven (4%) students reported that they had resorted to staying overnight at the university because they did not have a place to stay.

Impact on studies is a major challenge.

When asked,
“Do you feel the number that the number of hours that you work
interferes with your ability to study?”
, the responses were staggering.

The  effects were more acute on students with the most financial hardship. However, the overall impact is also concerning as the simplified table from the report illustrates here. 

A question should be asked about how successful a student might be if they worked for 55 hours per week. It is possible to do this if they held down evening and late shifts (6h x 5 days) and worked every weekend day (12h x 2 days). This may be the absolute limit, but time to socialise or work on assignments would be very restricted.

Is Swinburn University a special case?

It would seem not. It has 23,567 students (19,727 undergraduate and 3,096 postgraduate) and has a highly ranked international profile that would place it alongside many of the elite universities in the UK. From its origins as a Technical College in 1908, Swinburn attained university status on 1 July 1992. Since then it has advanced as one of the most prominent public universities for Technology, Art and Design in Australia. It was ranked 32nd in the world for art and design in the 2016 QS World University Rankings and listed in the top 40 for the art and design subject area in 2018. One would expect the experience of Swinburn to be replicated across similar universities and this is indeed the case.

The Australia-wide situation is not much better.

The survey of 18,500 students across Australia published last summer, ‘The 2017 Universities Australia Student Finances Survey’, painted a similar picture. Over 83% of students from Australia worked part-time during their studies. 
From ‘The 2017 Universities Australia Student Finances Survey
The distribution of hours worked shows a similar pattern as shown here from the report. It seems that over 31% work more than 20 hours per week with 12% exceeding 30 hours per week. Of local full-time students, 27.2% regularly missed classes because of paid employment. Almost half (40.7%) said that their work commitments adversely affected their performance at university. Then, there is the shock that 10% of those that receive some financial support still go without food. This rises to 19% for the 40% of those that independently support themselves. This is a significant adverse effect on progress and success for a large number of students.

Does lower funding for students in Australia exacerbate the problem? 

Students in Australia might have more to contend with since there are no maintenance loans as in the UK. However, there are a series of means tested benefits available that do take account of the lack of parental support. The applicant is largely tested on their personal assets and means.
Small start-up and relocation loans are available to supplement a limited Youth Allowance that is the main safety net for those with less finance. The government’s Study Assist site is very informative. When inputting my own circumstances from my days as a student, it resulted in an offer of around A$250 allowance per month. Taking inflation into account, this is little better than the situation I found myself in my first year back in 1973. However, I calculated that I would need to work for between 20 and 25 hours per week to get by in today’s Australia. This partially explains the drive to part-time employment.

Australia's fees are also very complex and variable across subjects due to different government subsidies for each subject. Numbers are capped for the so called ‘Commonwealth supported places (CSPs)’. This means that the repayments are lower for some lucky students. However, the places are allocated on the basis of grades attained at school. This inherently favours the well-off that attend the better schools.  Nothing different in the outcome to here then. Those not offered a CSP can be enrolled in a full fee-paying place where the government does not pay the subsidy and they pay the full amount of the fees. As for the UK, this favours those with lower attainment but who can afford it.

Lessons for the UK.

The situation is different in the UK on the surface. Maintenance loans have been increased to the point that students from poorer families may be able to study with fewer hours working; but also must accumulate colossal debt. In the past, TEFS has highlighted the fact that around 64% of UK students (almost one million) do not have term-time jobs to contend with. See TEFS 27th July 2018 ‘The vast majority - one million - of students have no employment when in full-time studies.’ This leaves around 36% students seeking jobs to make ends meet since maintenance loans and grants in the UK are still insufficient. It is easy to imagine that those minority students are suffering the same problems as the majority in Australia. However, in the UK we have very little data that specifically links working patterns to progress at university. The recent AdvanceHE /Higher Education Policy Institute survey of 14,072 UK students (Student Academic Experience Survey 2019) simply noted that the average hours per week worked by all students was 8.7 hours (see TEFS 14th June 2019 ‘The student experience 2019: There is no such thing as an average student’.) But this figure is meaningless as it included a significant number with no employment and, unlike the Swinburn survey, it failed to show the distribution of hours worked.

The individuals count.

There is an overwhelming sense that the UK should look again at its financial support for students. The recent Augar Report falls well short of what is needed (See TEFS 30th May 2019 ‘Augar stirs up the system: The ripples will go far beyond his remit’). It is clear from the Australian surveys that less time to study means less progress for those affected students. The survey by Swinburn University should become the template for every UK University and their recommendations about financial well-being should be followed. The observation that 64% of young people on Youth Allowance are reported by the Australian Council of Social Services to have an income that is below the poverty line (see Australian Council of Social Service report ‘Poverty in Australia 2018’) should set the alarm bells ringing here. We may have a more divided society, whereby many students are backed by considerable family resources, but that is not sufficient excuse to abandon the rest.

Finally. Spare at thought for the 37 students tha
t ended up sleeping somewhere on campus because they had no other place to go. Or the one that was rough sleeping whilst another nine were ‘couch surfing’. With the added stress and little food to eat, it is surely not the best days of their lives. But hopefully it will get better in time if they make it through. It would be naïve to think this was not also happening in the UK. So much for ‘student experience’ it seems.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics


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