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.
“Do you feel the number that the number of hours that you work
interferes with your ability to study?”, the responses were staggering.
The Australia-wide situation is not much better.
|From ‘The 2017 Universities Australia Student Finances Survey|
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 that 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.