To someone older and wiser (and richer),
The future of our country currently lies in the hands of people who cannot make ends meet. Tertiary students are expected to complete 40 hours of study a week (the equivalent of full time work) while working to support themselves financially and living away from home, often not by choice. This means that in order to support themselves financially, students are forced to make study a second priority.
The biggest hindrance to students studying away from home is an inability to receive Centrelink payments. Young people are considered financially dependent on their parents until they are 22, by which point, many will have finished their degrees. It is unrealistic to expect every student to be in a position where they are financially supported by their parents. The current Centrelink conditions imposed on students overlook the significant number of families that live between being poor enough to be eligible for Centrelink and wealthy enough to afford to support a child through university.
If we truly want an agile economy, we need a young, educated and energetic workforce. How can we expect students to fill this role when they are beaten down by their living conditions, wondering when they are going to be able to eat their next meal?
I am writing to you today to seek your assistance with sharing my story and helping to begin the conversation on the struggle our students face today, in the hope that exposure and momentum will bring about change.
I am a third year student at the Australian National University studying a double degree in politics, philosophy and economics and international security studies. To do this degree, I had to move away from my home and family who live in Townsville, North Queensland. As I am 19 years old, Centrelink considers me a ‘dependent’ and my parents’ combined salaries and assets are such that I am unable to receive any financial assistance from the government while I study. However, a series of unfortunate and unpredictable events have left my parents without the capacity to financially support me.
I am legally an adult. I can drive a car, vote in elections, purchase property, join the defence force, accumulate thousands of dollars of debt, drink alcohol, pay taxes, sign legal documents, travel overseas and be tried in a court the same as any other adult for any crimes I commit. All of this, I can do without the express permission of my parents. I am legally responsible for the decisions I make. The law treats me the same as it does a 25 year old, or a 53 year old. But not when it comes to Centrelink. For some reason, the government has deemed me financially dependent on my parents until I turn 22, unless, of course, I spend at least a year in full time work. But I dare you to try and find full-time work as a 17 year old with nothing but a high school certificate and no interest in trade. It’s not an easy task. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Ah, but there’s a loophole… I just need to get married, or have a baby. Then I’ll be ‘independent’. Believe me when I say that these are solutions some students have actually considered. Can you imagine that? Seriously considering life-changing decisions like having a child just so you can put food on the table?
To be able to continue my studies, I work two jobs. This is on top of the expected 40 hours a week of study I am expected to do to maintain my status as a full-time student and be able to remain in my on-campus accommodation. Even working most afternoons and evenings, often doing early morning shifts and weekend shifts, I am unable to meet all my necessary expenses.
I do not tell you my story with the intention of earning your pity. Nor do I tell you it in the hope that you will possess some magical solution that will alleviate the pressures I face. I tell you my story because I know it is not the exception to the rule. My experiences are not unusual. I hear similar stories around university all the time. And various studies have revealed that the evidence is more than simply anecdotal. Two thirds of undergraduate university students experience financial hardship with an annual income under $20,000. One in five students survive on just $10,000 a year. Both of these figures fall far from the national minimum wage. One in three students report regularly missing university classes due to work commitments. One in five students must regularly go without food because they cannot afford it.
Financial stress is a serious problem for university students today. And in 2018, when education is Australia’s third largest export industry, and the government preaches the importance of educating young people, students should not have to wonder where their next meal is coming from and how long they will have to go hungry.
And yet whenever I mention this struggle I am told “that’s what uni’s about” or “living on instant noodles and spending your leftover cash on cheap booze is why uni is the best time of your life”. I fail to see how it could be the best time of my life when I am trying to work out a budget and determine how many meals I can eat this week. Students are responsible for this too. The common “Dude, I’m so broke this week”, that we have all been guilty of dropping to friends at least once adds to this rhetoric, and is only going to increase our apathy towards to the very real problems faced by students, unless we make a change.
We as a society cannot continue to romanticise the lifestyle of the ‘broke uni student’. Trivialising the financial hardship of students makes us apathetic to the real problem of poverty and financial struggle that is severely impacting the lives of young people across Australia. If we do nothing to improve a system that makes life for students near impossible, we not only set them up to fail but we disadvantage our entire society. We need to make conscious and significant change. We need to give students a fair start.
A broke uni student.