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Work, Study, Eat, Sleep, Repeat: The Struggle of Being a Low-SES Working Student at the ANU

Image Credit: Nathalie Rosales-Cheng

Work, Study, Eat, Sleep, Repeat. It’s a daily structure that many of us at the ANU are familiar with. Plenty of students have part time or full-time jobs and it is even becoming common to meet someone with more than one job. Money is simply always on our minds. Whilst reasons vary, many students at the ANU are working solely for expendable income as a means to support their lifestyle and are able to cut down where necessary. Often, these students are the focus of how the ANU, and especially how the academics, conveners, and tutors, structure their courses and lessons.

Higher Education is becoming increasingly inaccessible for working students; from mandatory labs that offer no flexibility, time requirements for readings and course material, to the generalised culture around being low-SES. All of this plus the cost of attending, measured in the tangible costs of lost wages through reduced availability, textbooks, supplies, and course fees, with the intangible emotional and psychological costs, places a burden on students without the privilege of exterior support. It’s hard managing all of these things and these costs impact how you structure your degree and whether you stay enrolled. Part time enrolment has complications in and of itself in terms of degree time but is often the most chosen route. There are options to catch up through summer or winter semesters but the time requirements for these intensive courses, whilst expected, are almost impossible to meet with employment involved. The same can be said about internships and exchanges, highly beneficial programs that working students are unable to participate in because of time requirements.
There is a major absence of understanding that employment = livelihood. Personally, I don’t have support outside of myself. I live alone, I don’t have the benefit of financial assistance from family, and Centrelink does not give a high enough payment for me to continue to live independently. There are many things that my conveners could do to assist me that they don’t do because of the perception that my work isn’t mandatory. They often wouldn’t consider the fact that a student may not have done the reading because they were at work until ten at night and genuinely did not have the time, the perception is immediately that that student is in some way lazy.

Scheduling labs and tutorials correctly is important for all students but is especially critical for working students. A miss-step in lab scheduling can cause major issues with employers. I have previously attempted to get priority enrolment for one of my courses explaining that I could only attend labs that were on a particular day due to work. It was a reasonable request but the response I got back was more akin to the Hunger Games “may the odds be ever in your favour” mentality. Because of my ability to attend multiple labs I was unable to get placed into any of the labs that I needed and was advised that I should just organise something with my employer instead. I have been forced to drop a course because I have not been able to get the lab that I need to fit with my employment. Complications like this push back how long it takes for degrees to be completed.

I took a summer semester this year to try and “catch-up” and it was ridiculously difficult. I expected as much, but the responses from my classmates I did not. In between managing 3 separate jobs, I was doing several readings every night, attending class for 8 hours 3 days a week for 2 weeks, and submitting an assignment almost every day. Upon telling one of my class mates that I was working before and after university, they informed me that they took 2 weeks off for the course. I explained that I couldn’t afford to do that, they responded: “Why did you even take the course then?” The implication from statements like this, and this certainly isn’t an isolated incident, is that if I can’t afford to go to university without working then I shouldn’t be going to university at all. I could then go on and explain the economic trap that engages but to simplify: Poor + No Education = minimal job opportunities= Still Poor.

With all of this considered it is no wonder that many low-SES students, if they do indeed get to ANU, can’t maintain their enrolment because inaccessibility is just too much. But, let’s face it, ANU doesn’t really want you to work whilst studying, they make that abundantly clear in their helpful “Study & Work” guide on ANU’s website. The guide weighs up the pros and cons of working whilst studying without acknowledging that some of us don’t have a choice. In addition, the ANU advises you to seek out employment that is relevant to your degree, offers you flexible hours, isn’t too far away, and offers you security. Those of us who need to work to survive understand that hardly any of that is a requirement, the ideal job would be one that offers you enough hours, minimum wage and the comfort that you probably won’t be fired. This isn’t the reality though. Many of us have to take on more than one job to ensure that we can at least afford accommodation and food. The guide itself problematises the work/study relationship and places the blame on the sick/tired/mentally exhausted student rather than requiring ANU to take responsibility and implement reasonable adjustments for working students.

The adjustments that would help aren’t even that hard to implement. Priority enrolment is already in place but the process needs to be more accessible to working students. Course material can be made more financially accessible by ensuring that libraries have more than 2 copies of the text book; assessment can become more accessible by allowing employment issues to be a viable reason for an extension. Honestly, I could go on and on with a full list of all the examples of changes that ANU could make to greatly improve the experience of its underprivileged students but… I’ve got to get to work.