“I know my mental health hasn’t been great because of the financial stresses,” arts student Molly Willmott says.

Below the poverty line: The real cost of being a university student

Uni life has always been somewhat synonymous with poverty. But students and social workers say things have got much worse, forcing some to abandon their studies.

By Jane Cowan


The live-at-homer

Molly’s fortnightly budget:

Centrelink: $289
Expenses:

  • Board, phone, miscellaneous bills: $150
  • Public transport: $40
  • Social, alternate transport: $20–50
  • Books, uni supplies: $200 (per semester)

Molly Willmott, 19, has been going to job interviews fruitlessly for a year and a half now.

Retail. Hospitality. Spends her time trawling employment websites. She went for one job as a telemarketer. Another as a warehouse assistant.

“It’s rough,” says the politics and sociology major at the University of Melbourne.

“I’m from a single-parent, single-income household so I don’t really have the financial backing at all. I feel guilty taking any money from my mum. I’ve got two siblings she also has to look after.

“There’s that stereotype of a student surviving on two-minute noodles and it’s very true.

“I know a lot of people who’ve had to sacrifice food to be able to pay rent and bills. It’s more common than you think.

“Living under the poverty line, it’s rising. We’re lucky we’ve got places on campus that run foodbanks to help students in dire straits. They just stock noodles and you can take as much as you need.”

Student poverty is nothing new, but those working in the field say the problem has significantly worsened in recent years.

Victoria University welfare advisor Stuart Martin, who chairs a Student Financial Advisor Network that delivers welfare and social support nationwide, says it’s a much bigger issue than the general public realises.

“We are seeing significantly more students seeking financial aid to pay for general living expenses such as food, gas and electricity bills and overdue rent, with this trend increasing each year,” Mr Martin says.

“It is roundly accepted that the Newstart Payment is considerably well below the poverty line. What does that say about the much smaller payments made to students, who must still pay the same cost for goods and services that Newstart recipients and the general public pay but with a far smaller income?

“The Government often states that students are paid a lower rate because they live at home and are therefore supported by their parents. As workers in the sector we know this it is very far from the truth, with many families unable to financially support students in tertiary study.”

Living in the family home in the suburbs means upwards of three hours on public transport for Willmott.

Willmott, who lives with her mother and two siblings in a rented house in Melbourne’s south-east, acknowledges she is one of the lucky ones.

“I am in a very privileged position to be able to go home and have my family there just in case. I don’t like asking them for money but if push came to shove I can do that.”

But the luxury of living at home in the suburbs means it’s more than three hours to trek to campus in inner-city Parkville, via three different modes of public transport.

“I take bus, train, tram and something’s always late. Travel alone takes a third of what money I have. It just drains away throughout the week.”

She’s looking to move out within the next six months, partly because jobs have proven hard to come by where she lives, but she’s not sure how she’ll afford to move.

Willmott takes a simple lunch from home to avoid having to buy anything on campus.

Her fortnightly budget has a lot of holes. There’s nothing allocated for clothing, and Centrelink loans for textbooks have been used to buy warm clothes for winter. Sometimes textbooks and reading.

“Centrelink has an optional $1,300 loan to buy textbooks every semester. I’ve used that to buy clothes so I can be warm through winter and given rest to my mum. There’ve been times I haven’t been able to buy textbooks and readers.

“I’ve got so much anger about the treatment of students by the Government at the moment. The welfare system is incredibly underfunded and understaffed,” she said.

“When I got my Youth Allowance I needed to get it urgently. I needed to start uni and buy textbooks and it took four months for that to go through. There have been people who’ve been on the phone for four hours trying to connect with Centrelink.”

“I come from a very privileged position. But I still know a lot of people sacrificing food to pay rent and bills,” Willmott says.

Welfare advisor Stuart Martin says it’s a legitimate complaint. Students, he says, are actively discouraged from going into Centrelink offices and instead driven to phoning or using an app to seek help.

“We consistently see students waiting for more than two hours to reach a real human when calling Centrelink,” he said.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge says waiting times will be cut by the 250 additional Centrelink call centre staff announced in the federal budget. He says massive investment in technology has halved wait times for Youth Allowance and Abstudy claims.

“Students have always had to budget carefully,” he says.

Checking social media while brushing her teeth, Willmott says she had to use a $1,300 Centrelink loan meant for textbooks to buy warm winter clothes.

His colleague, Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham, said his message to students was clear: “Taxpayers, including those who have never been to university, will continue to pay the majority of your fees for going to university.”

“And taxpayers will pay all of the cost of your student loan up front and not expect you to repay it until you’re actually firmly in the workforce, on track hopefully in your career. If we’re to preserve all of those opportunities for the future we need to ensure the higher education system is financially sustainable.”


The share-houser

Shannon’s fortnightly budget:

Income: $200 from job at McDonald’s
Expenses:

  • Rent: $329.50
  • Electricity, gas: $25
  • Internet: $10
  • Phone bill: $50
  • Food, household items : $40-$60
  • Myki: $30-$40
“Everyone says it’s meant to be the best time of your life,” says 21-year-old Colee.

It’s 7:00am and Shannon Colee stands bleary-eyed at the stove, boiling a pot of pasta as the kitchen window fogs over.

She has an internal argument with herself over food every week.

“Often I’ll have $20 and need it to last a week. I’ll be like, is it better to spend all of it in one go and make something like spaghetti bolognaise where you can make a week’s worth?

“Or do you pick something cheaper and probably not as good for you, but have a little bit of cash left over in case something happens during the week?”

She points to a bottle of oil she bought on special for $8.99.

“This bottle of olive oil is the most expensive thing I own,” she tells her housemate as they stand at the sink, sipping tea and coffee in their pyjamas.

“The pasta I get is 99 cents a bag. I eat a lot of a pasta because it’s cheaper. Tinned tomatoes are a dollar each a can. Last week I splurged on an avocado,” she smiles, “which apparently is why we aren’t going to own houses”.

Three or four hours’ work a week at the local McDonald’s doesn’t help much.

“It really is borderline impossible to find a decent job. Most places want younger people. McDonald’s — even cafes and stuff — they want to pay junior wages. Or they hire lots of people but then they only give you one shift a week.

“I’m always tired,” says Colee, pictured with her housemate Courtney Davison in her room.

“It’s that whole underemployment figure. If you earn under a certain amount they don’t have to put in for your super.”

Colee once had savings from a $9-an-hour traineeship at her local council during a gap year, but that’s gone. The past few months she’s been getting help from her mother, a school teacher and single parent.

Colee moved from Warrnambool to do a Bachelor of International Studies at Deakin University’s Burwood campus.

“It was when I was finishing year 12 that Tony Abbott became prime minister, and not long after that there were cuts to Deakin’s Warrnambool campus. They were cutting subjects and it didn’t seem like a great idea to be studying there.”

Right now there is $23 in the bank. Her pay won’t deposit for another couple of days. Rent is due in three.

Colee sips a morning cup of tea after making a packed lunch of plain pasta with a few cherry tomatoes.

When Colee puts money on her Myki to make the four-hour round trip by tram from Coburg to Burwood for class, she adds precisely $2.85 — enough to get her balance out of negative territory. That way she can at least board. She keeps an eagle eye out for inspectors.

There is no allowance in Colee’s budget for social activities. There’s the rare hot chocolate with a friend after class. But otherwise she buys a pack of tea bags and carries a mug with her. Just add hot water.

“If I want to go to the pub, I’ll buy a pint of cider which is $9 and drink that all night.

Colee pays $329.50 a fortnight to share a house in Coburg with three others.

“It’s meant to be the best time of your life. You’re constantly told you should go to university while you’re young. You’re told at school it’s everything, that you can do this if you study hard. Then you get there and realise you have to basically buy your way into university because you can’t afford to live without help.

“It’s really hard to struggle in this sort of way and then be told by the Government that I chose this because I wanted to get an education.”

Mr Martin says government policy on the issue was too often “hollow rhetoric from politicians who are not held accountable for their statements”.

“It is very tough for students,” he says.

“We have far too many people in Parliament who have sucked for free at the teat of the state and still trot out this mantra about self-reliance.

“For people who are struggling, it doesn’t help.

“I try to use the time productively,” says Colee, who spends four hours travelling by tram between Coburg to Burwood to attend university.
“As student welfare advisors we’re seeing an increasingly larger cohort come to us that we can’t assist financially and they’re just leaving study altogether.

“Often in TAFE, leaving study with a debt. Then they’re dealing with debt collection agencies and some even ending up in court.

“I find it upsetting to think that people say it was hard when they were studying, so it’s just part of the experience. To say, ‘Suck it up, princess’ … just delegitimises the problem totally, whereas we should be saying, ‘It was bad then, why is it still bad now?’ It’s time to fix it.”

A 2012 survey by Universities Australia uncovered evidence two out of three Australian university students were living below the poverty line.

“This is more than just a few kids doing it tough — it’s an issue of national concern,” Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) chief executive Emma King says.

With $23 in her bank account, Colee (R) risks a hot chocolate with friend Jacinta Spithill before class.

“Things are even harder if you happen to come from a disadvantaged background or have other struggles in your life.

“If you have a mental health condition or family obligations that make it difficult to keep a part-time job, then your grip on study is extremely shaky.

“If we do nothing about a system that makes life near impossible for some students, then we’re setting them up to fail.”


The country student

Jack’s fortnightly budget:

Centrelink: $292.70
Expenses:

  • Board: $40
  • Fuel: $70
  • Public transport: $50
  • Internet: $20
  • Food, groceries: $80
  • Phone: $15
  • Car registration: $25.85 (paid annually)
  • Car insurance: $30.64 (paid annually)
  • Savings, emergencies: $40
  • Books, uni supplies: $140 (per semester)
“No-one’s excited to get involved [in student life] when you’re too busy planning your budget and how many meals you can have,” says Surplice.

Having grown up on a farm north of Bendigo, Jack Surplice is the first male in his family to graduate high school — let alone go to university.

Relatives talk about it as an achievement.

“Education is seen as the thing that breaks the poverty barrier,” says the 21-year-old, who is studying history and sociology at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus.

“You have parents making sacrifices to give their children an education, only for students to find once they enter the system it’s just gradual entrenchment of poverty.”

He gets by boarding at his uncle and aunt’s where he eats from the same pool of groceries, though he feels guilty for the added financial burden on them. He makes sure to shop at a low budget supermarket, spending $10–20 once or twice a week.

Surplice is lucky enough to have a car. A second-hand Mazda he bought from his aunt. “It gets me from point A to B,” he says. “It’s got fuel in the tank.”

However, he’s sometimes had to go without insurance or rely on the charity of family to pay his registration.

“It’s everyday student culture for people to be saying, you know, ‘I’m so broke this week’. You’ll hear it from 10 different people in one walk through the student union.”

He’s noticed an apathy amongst students because of all the pressures.

“No one’s excited to get involved (in student life) when you’re too busy planning your budget and how many meals you can have.

“I’d question how much student culture even exists anymore. My friends and I think of our university as a bit of a technical college where you get degrees, but it doesn’t seem to really have a university culture. Because of all the neglect regionally, we can only choose from about seven majors. That probably has something to do with it.”

Surplice pays $40 a fortnight to room with his aunt and uncle and eats mostly from their groceries, but feels guilty for putting an added financial burden on them. Pic: ABC News/Larissa Romensky

As course delivery shifts online, more and more lectures have been eliminated, Surplice says.

There’s a lot of time spent in his bedroom at home, or between different volunteer positions on and off campus. Active in the labour and union movements, every Monday is set aside for campaigning. There are also volunteer shifts as a tour guide at a Buddhist temple. The odd bit of cash-in-hand work.

“You have to put extra effort into extracurricular stuff to get noticed by employers. I’m the president of two university clubs, which means my ability to look for work is restricted to non-existent.”

Surplice knows students in Bendigo who dive through bins for food.

He’s considering a postgraduate law degree, which he expects will leave him close to $100,000 in debt, but he’d have to move to the city to pursue it.

“To actually fully comprehend the real anxiety and uncertainty, it’s not something you can put into words. I see our scenario as country students as being quite terrible and the inner-city as Armageddon.

“I’ve definitely thought of dropping out, but what would I do?”

It’s not just the financial cost, Surplice says, but the psychological effect.

“I cannot envision my future. Don’t get me wrong — I’d like to one day be settled down in a house with a partner, but the actual practicality of even a simple existence like that? I have nothing but anxiety.”

Studying in his room, Surplice often makes excuses to avoid going out with friends because he can’t afford it. Pic: ABC News/Larissa Romensky

National Union of Students president Sophie Johnston says it’s time to “acknowledge the failures from successive governments that have left today’s young people far worse off than generations before us”.

“This generation will be the first priced out of the housing market, our penalty rates are being cut, underemployment is rife and we’ve seen drastically low wage growth for decades.

“How are young people supposed to create opportunities for themselves or aspire to anything when these are the card they’ve been dealt?

“Today’s young people are not asking for a free ride, we are merely asking to be afforded the same opportunities as generations before us.

“The idea that students are sitting around twiddling their thumbs and eating smashed avocado is quite frankly ridiculous and completely out of touch with the reality of being a student.”

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