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Below the Breadline: The Truth about Student Poverty

The cliché of the student lifestyle—partying every night, sleeping until noon and living on beer and baked beans—is further from the truth than you might think. The idea of the poor student has become so culturally ingrained that many of us probably enjoy reminiscing about our years of subsisting on two-minute noodles and living in a creature-infested sharehouse; but student poverty is a much more serious and widespread problem than we’d like to believe. In fact, for the majority of undergraduates and postgraduates studying in Australia today, the struggle to make ends meet is taking an increasingly huge toll, and the long-term implications of student poverty are anything but amusing.

COVID-19, a surge in rental prices, prohibitive petrol prices and rapid inflation have all contributed to a significant increase in the cost of living since 2020. While the costs of everything from toilet paper to pencils have soared, student fees have, in some cases, more than doubled. Beginning in 2024, students have been hit with an average increase in fees of 7.8%; however, some humanities courses have increased by 144.2%, while fees for law, accounting, commerce, economics and administration have risen by a whopping 46.3%.

Adding to the formidable costs of living, most students now find themselves unable to access Youth Allowance payments, with those between the ages of 19 and 22 subject to the means testing of their parents. This means that over 450,000 students are locked out of Australia’s social security system. Those who are able to access Youth Allowance are subsisting well below the poverty line on $26 a day. Some students are forced to complete placements, sometimes involving more than 800 hours of unpaid work, to achieve their degrees. Such placements prevent students from engaging in paid work to support themselves and can ultimately force students to drop out. A recent report found that, in the wake of the pandemic, international students are ending up homeless and hungry. New research shows that one in four students routinely go without food and other necessities because they cannot afford them.

Regardless of whether students have paid employment or other forms of financial support—either from the government or from their educational institution—their living conditions, income and expected academic output are seriously misaligned. For those who have jobs outside of university, the amount of hours they must work in order to support themselves means they end up sacrificing study time; according to  a recent report, students are being forced to take on more hours of work in response to cost-of-living pressures.

However, those with other forms of financial support hardly fare any better—the maximum amount of youth allowance students might be eligible to receive from the government is equal to around half the minimum wage. For those who have won scholarships, which are highly competitive, the terms under which they must then work and study are not exactly conducive to earning a decent living alongside the long hours they must put into their research. Australia’s most common postgraduate scholarship, the Research Training Program (RTP), gives students just $1,238.15 per fortnight; or $619.08 per week (again, far less than someone earning the minimum wage).

The many postgraduates who spend their allotted working hours (inevitably more than eight) tutoring at their university must shoulder an extra burden. Working conditions for casual academic staff are indefensively poor, despite the fact that these casuals now undertake almost half of all undergraduate teaching in Australian universities—National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) President Jeannie Rea describes this growing reliance on a casual (and thus easily exploitable) workforce as a ‘the dirty secret of Australian higher education’. Casual staff are overworked, under-resourced and expected to put in long hours of unpaid overtime. The more worrying long-term implication of this is how many aspiring academics end up leaving the sector because the financial and emotional toll of their working arrangements and academic pressures becomes too great to bear.

Ultimately, this has a social as well as a personal cost. In addition to causing stress and depression and affecting students’ ability to complete their studies, the knock-on effects of student poverty have serious long-term consequences for Australia’s research sector. The expectations of postgraduate students and early career researchers are especially unrealistic: after spending years completing higher research degrees with paltry financial support and poor working conditions, many face a demoralising future of short-term contracts and job insecurity, which could lead to their seeking work in different fields or leaving the country altogether to pursue academic careers.

It’s hard to believe that these stark findings reflect the reality of so many people in a prosperous first-world country with a supposedly robust economy. However, research indicates that Australia has a widening gap between rich and poor, and increasing numbers of young people—particularly those aged between 15 and 24—are unable to cover their living costs or enjoy the benefits of Australia’s current economic health.

Age aside, anyone enrolling in tertiary study—whether they’re fresh out of high school or a mature-age student—is likely to be at least partly motivated by the belief that a degree will offer them better employment prospects. However, the situation for many students, who struggle to support themselves while studying and then graduate with thousands of dollars of debt to their name, is sadly no pathway to a financially secure future; it’s also unsustainable, unjust and untenable in a country like Australia.

The good news is that spreading awareness of student poverty and taking action to turn things around can help improve the lives of students everywhere. The NUS runs constant campaigns to win fairer deals for students and the NTEU—the only union to solely represent Australian tertiary employees—lobbies for the sector and gives students and academics a voice. In the meantime, MoneySmart gives online financial advice and counselling for anyone trying to manage their funds and live on a budget.

Elite Editing has also joined the fight to end student poverty by launching the Thesis Write-up Scholarship. Full details of the scholarship are available on the Elite Editing website at Applications open 1 January and close on 30 June each year. The scholarship will be awarded prior to 31 July.

For more information, contact Elite Editing, by email at or by phone on 1800 246 558.

Updated 29 April 2024


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