US universities more affordable than Australia’s. For real

How the budget media lock-up and an international study reveal the cost of being a student in Australia.

In early April Et Cetera signed a letter along with other student publications expressing disappointment in student media being shut out of the Federal Government’s Budget media lock-up. This spoke to the diminished role students are given in discussions about their future.

Instead our voices are spoken by other media, who are not directly affected by the same budget changes that we are. Here’s why that should concern you.

As the adage goes “if you are not at the table, you are on the menu”. Budget cuts to tertiary education, or access to assistance, aren’t just a problem for this generation of students, but also for the foundations of our status as a meritocracy.

If you are privileged enough, you’ve heard your parents frequently tell you that their university years were some of the “best” of their lives. The less privileged have probably heard this from their parents more than once, often at the peak of anxiety during exams. If you are less privileged still, and neither of your parents went to university then, statistically, studying will be even less of a “good time” for you.

We know we’ll pay heavily for our education.

So what separates the “best times” from our times? Well, we know we’ll pay heavily for our education, and the cost is growing. Penalty rates have been cut and the cost of living is increasing. A 2010 global study by Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) shows in real terms that Australia has fallen behind the US in affordability and accessibility of university.

That’s right, the United States. Sound surprising?

As well as tuition fees, the study took into consideration cost of living data, student incomes, and grants. The most common way in which many governments help individuals offset the cost of attending higher education is through grants; whether that be for rent, housing or food subsidies. This is the major reason why Australia falls behind the US, with relatively little assistance offered to students struggling to manage the cost of living.

Of course, when purely looking at tuition costs, Australia leads the US in affordability. But as each layer accounting for other real costs and assistance is added, we fall further and further behind. Of the 15 countries in the study, Australia ranks 13th for affordability and access to university. The US is 12th, with Finland and Sweden ranking the most affordable.

Australians are also more out of pocket for educational costs than their US and British counterparts and the trend shows us falling further behind. The study notes that changes to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), stagnant wage growth and a disproportionate rise in the cost of living have resulted in a fall in Australia’s relative affordability of university.

The consequences are made clear in a Universities Australia 2012 study of nearly 12,000 university students, which considered the financial lived experiences of the participants. The results are not surprising if, like me, your university diet came with a risk of overdosing on mi goreng seasoning and the hope of free staff meals.

The results are not surprising if, like me, your university diet came with a risk of overdosing on mi goreng seasoning and the hope of free staff meals.

Specifically, the study found over two in three students are financially insecure, one in five students regularly go without food or other necessities, half survive by taking on personal debt, and one in four students work more than 20 hours per week to get by. Despite one quarter working part-time, two-thirds of students have an income less than $20,000 per year, and one in five students have an income of less than $10,000 per year, or a $193 per week. For context, the poverty line is $426.30 a week.

If this reflects your experience, or someone you know who is struggling to stay in university due to financial strain, you should be aware of what the government is offering to deal with this problem. Or how they’re making it worse.

So in the absence of an invitation to review the budget, we want to let you know where you can find information and find help.  On every campus there are support networks and Welfare Officers elected to help you. They can let you know what’s on offer, where you can find work, and help consulting with your faculty if your economic situation prevents you from meeting course requirements. Seek help, it’s there for you, at every university and on every campus.

If you have bigger bones to pick, or just want to join the team fighting for affordable and accessible university, get in contact with the National Union of Students. Jordon O’Reilly leads their Welfare Office, and can help connect you with assistance services at your university. (You can also read a profile of Jordon and his role here.)

These institutions and roles exist to serve and protect the interests of students. So if you have an issue, a question or a concern, get in contact. They are an avenue for students to make meaningful change and start dialogues with decision makers. Keep them relevant and let them advocate for your ability to stay in university.

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