A candid photograph of students on the lawn in front of the ANU law school, roughly cut out and transposed on a purple watercolour background

The ANU is Failing Working Class Students: Get Angry, Get Even

Image Credit: Nathalie Rosales-Cheng

As working class people, we value higher education because it opens up the world. My degree is set to give me a chance at a higher average income, at a broader career path and a lifetime more of opportunities. Coming from a family of merchant seamen, of labourers, of childcare workers, disability care workers and secretaries who haven’t had these chances, I am incredibly grateful. But this isn’t what I value most about being at university.

Instead what I value most is the way higher education has changed the way I think: it’s given me new ideas, analytic tools and critical thinking skills my hometown couldn’t offer me. These ways of thinking have helped me make sense of my place within such an inequitable world, have given me a voice, a sense of agency and a sense of self-worth. Like Jessica Andrews, a working class Masters student in London, wrote for the Independent in February “every day I struggle with guilt and hunger and shame and I know these are feelings I will always be coming to terms with,” but higher education and writing “has given me the tools to work through them”.

This is not to say higher education is more valuable than vocational education like TAFE or apprenticeships, or the many other livelihoods working class people create for themselves. Places like the ANU could not function without labourers who over many seasons rebuild, restore and maintain the learning environment we often take for granted.

That being said, coming to the ANU should be an opportunity every working class person, who I hope might find higher education as transformative as I have, has. For young carers and single Mum’s who have not yet been able to pursue the education they want, for newly settled migrants in Western Sydney to young kids itching to escape the poverty of rural Australia – our national university should be a place for you. But as it stands, it’s not. It’s inaccessible and, as I’ve written before, our number of low-SES enrolments reflect this. So what could the ANU be doing differently for working class students?

 

Scholarships and Bursaries

Despite the breadth of scholarships available to ANU students, few are equity-based and targeted at working class people who, after deferring tuition costs to HECS, still so crucially depend on this source of income to get to university. Instead, the majority of scholarships on offer are merit-based, meaning they are offered on a competitive basis in relation to academic achievements, extra-curricular activities or community service. We know how meritocracy works and that those from upper class, privately educated backgrounds are more likely to have access to a wider array of opportunities and extra-curriculars than working class students. We know that these profoundly privileged students are more likely to secure merit-based scholarships and that working class people miss out.

This remains true of scholarship programs like the Tuckwell, which despite taking into account personal circumstance and adversity, still prioritise merit over equity. This will likewise be true of any scholarship offered by the Ramsay Centre’s newly proposed Bachelor of Western Civilisation, aimed at attracting the ‘best and brightest’ (often code for ‘from the North Shore of Sydney’).

Instead of investing time and energy in scholarship programs from the pocket of Paul Ramsay, the ANU needs to be creating a suite of equity scholarships for working class students, capable of subsidising both moving costs and the cost of living for the span of their degrees. These scholarships need to be publicised in postcodes the ANU would never normally reach out to and have a clear and unbureaucratic application process. For many working class people and their families, navigating a scholarship application is unfamiliar territory. As Bridget Neave, an employee at the University of Sydney’s Widening Participation and Outreach program has said “You don’t know about these scholarships because you don’t know anyone in your family, school or community who has ever gotten one.”

Ditching often condescending and unhelpful ‘budgeting’ classes during O Week and instead expanding the emergency bursaries for textbooks, laptops, equipment and other living costs available through ANUSA is similarly important in providing economic security for students coming from poverty.

 

Housing

For many working class students who have grown up dealing with housing insecurity, finding secure, affordable accommodation at university can be the difference between completing a degree and not. Poverty makes the lives of working class people precarious, with many people jumping between private rentals and public housing waitlists. For many of us the idea of juggling this precariousness as well as study can be enough to crush higher education aspirations. Without the guarantee of any significant financial safety net or the assurance that long-term, affordable housing will be available, getting to and staying at the ANU is not achievable.

Currently there are limited affordable housing options for working class people in Canberra. The ANU colleges, marketed by the university as the housing solution for all, are too expensive for those who already struggle to make ends meet with casual work and Centrelink payments below the poverty line. The rents of colleges like Bruce Hall, Burgmann and Johns XIII continue to rise, and limited scholarship support is available. This means that many working class students cannot access on-campus accommodation if they want this experience.

It is important to consider, however, that making on-campus accommodation at the colleges cheaper is not a fix-all solution. For mature aged students from working class backgrounds wanting to study at the ANU, international postgraduate students, students with disabilities, students with children or students dealing with any other significant barrier, college accommodation is not always appropriate, desirable or welcoming. Often the colleges are toxic environments where misogyny and violence goes untackled, as has been exposed in the Red Zone Report, and unequal dynamics of power are reaffirmed. For working class kids who see being accepted into these institutions as a way out of trauma, living at college is often not safe and secure and is instead re-traumatising on several fronts.

More accessible housing needs to be made available off-campus, within close proximity to the university. Models like the Canberra Student Housing Co-Op offer more affordable accommodation and the university could be investing in a significant housing stock within inner north suburbs as it has done in previous decades. This could ensure working class students have access to below-market-price rents and don’t have to compete in an exorbitant rental market.

 

Social Support

It’s important to consider that getting to university is only half the battle – for working class students to succeed and thrive in an institution geared against them, ongoing social support needs to be on offer so that people can be supported throughout the entirety of their higher education. As I mentioned above, for many students trying to escape poverty, trauma has played a complex role in shaping their experiences. Trauma therapist Laura Brown has written extensively on how “social class has a circular relationship with trauma. People who are poor or working class are more likely to have exposures to some kinds of trauma and also less likely to have the resources with which to respond to a trauma when it does occur.”

In an environment like the ANU, this trauma may manifest in many ways, from addiction – considering how regularly many of us are exposed to alcohol and drugs in both safe and unsafe ways – to mental illness. For working class students struggling to cope, limited support is available through ANU Counselling: wait times are often unbearable and there exists limited capacity for consistent and regular support. ANU counsellors are frequently left only with the option of outsourcing social support to services within the broader Canberra community, which are hard to access when you have limited resources (it’s extremely hard to find bulk-billing services in Canberra!) and are unfamiliar with the ACT health system.

The same can be said for those working class students who are most likely to be carers or themselves living with a disability needing to access social support. Help is limited to the work of the DSA and Access and Inclusion, which at most can help with the creation of an Education Access Plan (EAP) supporting learning considerations and provide referrals to services like ANU Counselling or the ANU Health Service.

Expanding Access and Inclusion to incorporate recovery programs like many US universities have created would help make ANU a supportive space for those working class students navigating trauma. Expanding the type of social support available for students living with disabilities as well as carers could likewise see Access and Inclusion play a greater role in making the ANU accessible, centralising the services working class students need to survive at university. Perhaps most importantly, the ANU needs to be investing in and expanding ANU Counselling so that poorer students unable to access mental healthcare anywhere else in the community have a source of support and healthcare they can rely upon, for free, on a regular and ongoing basis.

 

Cultural Change

If the ANU is failing working class students on so many fronts, and so much needs to change, then why aren’t we talking about it more? Perhaps the biggest barrier at our university is the culture of elitism that is interwoven within the fabric of the ANU. From its obsession with rankings and sleek marketing, to the slow and unwitting takeover of our student spaces by public servants, private businesses and corporate organisations, at every twist and turn we are prevented from having honest and open discussions about class and poverty. These are issues considered too hard and shameful to talk about, which is why we revert to sanitising terms like ‘low-SES’ and talk disingenuously about what ‘low-SES engagement’ might look like.

I cannot put it any simpler than this: poor, working class students don’t need to be ‘engaged’ with. The ANU does not need complicated 2020 targets for low-SES enrolments whilst remaining uninterested in cultural change. Instead, working class students need the resources to get here, to stay here and for the ANU to accept this institution is not a playground for the wealthy. This university is for us too, because higher education is for us too, and we shouldn’t have to plead for acceptance.

We shouldn’t have to feel so estranged from the rest of our cohort because we aren’t upper class. We shouldn’t feel alien in the classroom because nothing we read reflects our experiences in the world and, most importantly, we shouldn’t feel the biting loneliness, shame and humiliation that comes with being working class at the ANU.

I don’t think higher education can ever be truly accessible for working class students until it’s made free and Youth Allowance, Newstart and other income support payments rest at a liveable wage. But I do believe the ANU administration has the immediate power to make changes that could drastically improve the chances of people coming from poverty and it is a damning indictment on this university until then.

The opportunity to learn and to think critically is what we should value about higher education above all else, and, referring back to Jessica Andrew’s writing, what has given me the power “to take all of the anger and confusion I have felt through being a young, female, working-class person in the world, and turn it into something else”. Everyone should have an opportunity to learn how to do that, especially the other angry people from poverty like me