What it's like to be a student on the poverty line  

17 October 2018

Mark Pace, National President, National Union of Students and Bachelor of Mathematical Studies student at The University of Adelaide

Mark Pace HSOne of my memories as a child was walking through Adelaide University with my family on open day.

It may have been ten or so years too early to explore my degree options, but I remember the thousands of excited secondary students seeking university degrees and a brighter future.

We were sitting down at the back of campus, overlooking Adelaide’s River Torrens and eating fairy floss when I asked my parents if I’d be able to study at university one day.

They told me we live in Australia, a country full of opportunities they never had overseas when they were younger. There are educational opportunities for all Australians who are willing to work hard for them.

My parents’ comments haven’t aged very well.

The 2017 Universities Australia Student Finances Survey of more than 18,500 students highlights just how outdated these comments are.

One in seven students regularly forfeit food to study, while one in 10 defer because they can’t meet their living costs.

One in three regularly missed uni lectures or classes because they had to work. And only 35 per cent of students who work believe that their work and study balance is actually sustainable.

While the findings made headlines and came as a shock to many, they aren’t much of a surprise for students.

They validate the financial hardship that thousands upon thousands of Australian students experience every day, in what seems to be a perpetual war on young people.

Students face a housing market that makes it increasingly difficult to maintain financial stability and secure a first home. With access to affordable housing now almost fictional fairy tale, many of us have adopted a ‘you just take it’ mentality.

Every student has heard their fair share of nightmare accommodation stories. Many of us have experienced them first hand.

In my own degree, I had to be on campus nine to five, Monday to Friday. That left very few hours to work. The penalty rates I received for working weeknights and weekends were crucial.

Weeks where I had to miss a weekend shift were the weeks I went hungry.

Our penalty rates – which we disproportionately relied on – have now also been gutted, forcing us to work longer for less, in an increasingly casualised and insecure workforce.

Losing your only source of income while preparing for exams, paying rent and putting food on the table is impossible for many students. Couch surfing, living on campus and skipping meals has become normal experience for many.

It’s ironic really. Australians are accessing higher education to open up opportunities but are often dragged below the poverty line in the process.

I enrolled at university to learn how to think critically, to become an active contributor to society and to learn how to live a fulfilling life.

Unfortunately, the current dynamics mean that accessing university can be contingent on your postcode, locking many Australians out of a lifetime of opportunities.

Universities are essential in shaping a fairer, and socially inclusive society which improves the lives of all Australians.

So why is it that in 2018, your bank balance determines your access to higher education?