More than half of Australian university students are often worrying about their finances and significant numbers are even having to skip meals to see themselves through university, according to a major study of the state of student finances.
At the same time, the 2017 study, commissioned by peak body Universities Australia, reveals families are increasingly having to step up and take on the burden of supporting students, even as a rising proportion are taking on long hours of paid work.
About 80 per cent of full time domestic undergraduate students are in paid work, but the proportion of these working 20 hours or more a week has risen to 31 per cent from 24 per cent in 2012. And almost two thirds report being dissatisfied with their work/study balance.
More students at university
The online survey of more than 18,500 students shows that while in proportional terms the financial circumstances of students has improved slightly over the last five years, large numbers are still struggling given more students are now at university. Since 2012 the number of domestic students enrolled in higher education has risen by 14 per cent to just over over 1 million in 2016.
Indigenous students, in particular, are dealing with significant disadvantage and on the whole undergraduate international students are struggling just as much as domestic students.
“We have increased the opportunity for people to go to university, but the survey shows families are increasingly having to wear some of the costs, students are having difficulty balancing study and work, and some are doing it really, really tough,” says lead survey author Professor Sophie Arkoudis, Associate Director of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of Melbourne, which was commissioned to carry out and analyse the survey.
The survey found that nearly 15 per cent of full time domestic undergraduates still report having to regularly go without food or other necessities to make ends meet, compared with 18 per cent in 2012. Similarly, over half (58 per cent) report being often worried about their finances, though that is down from 68 per cent five years ago.
Some 34 per cent of domestic undergraduate students report their expenses exceeding their estimated income. That figure rises to 43 per cent for Indigenous students and 49 per cent for international undergraduates.
“It paints a picture of many students being under a lot of stress in trying to complete their studies,” says Professor Arkoudis. “That one in seven students reported they are skipping necessities like food is particularly worrying and this survey barely scratches the surface in capturing really destitute students.”
Relying on family
According to the 2016 Census, over 10,000 tertiary education students were trying to complete their studies while struggling with homelessness or living in severely overcrowded conditions.
But at the same time as students are struggling to manage work and study, the proportion receiving some family support has risen. Among domestic full time undergraduates, 62 per cent now report receiving financial support from family, up from 54 per cent in 2012.
“Clearly Mums and Dads are having to wear some of the costs of the expansion in university places by helping students make ends meet,” says Professor Arkoudis.
But in a sign perhaps that students are increasingly taking advantage of online learning options, the proportion saying that work is hurting their studies is down to 41 per cent, from 50 per cent a year ago.
“I suspect this shows that students are taking advantage of online and blended learning opportunities that gives them greater flexibility, so that while they may not be able to attend all their classes, they can still access them online,” says Professor Arkoudis.
But Professor Arkoudis warns that given the growth in the number of students now studying, clearly many students are having to sacrifice academic performance to do paid work.
Co-researcher Samantha Marangell, herself an international PhD student at the Melbourne CSHE, says the insecure nature of much casual work likely makes it harder for students to get the right balance between work and study. For example, she notes that students can be pressured into working more hours than they want to simply to keep a casual job.
“Part of this dissatisfaction is probably more than just students feeling they are working too much or not working enough. It also likely reflects frustration that they lack the flexibility and security to tailor their work hours according to their study needs,” Ms Marangell says.
“If the system is increasingly requiring students to combine full time study with significant paid work, then perhaps we need to look at how we can make the labour market work better for students, like providing more secure work,” she says.
Many helping support their families
Large numbers of students are also having to financially support and care for family members while they study. This is especially true for Indigenous students. Some 18 per cent of domestic students report supporting a family member financially, while nearly 20 per cent care for a dependent family member.
But almost a third of Indigenous students report having to financially support and care for a dependent. And despite a greater proportion benefiting from government support and bursaries, Indigenous students are still significantly more likely to be worried about their finances (71 per cent) and skipping necessities (27 per cent).
“Indigenous students are particularly doing it tough and part of this may reflect some of the extra responsibilities and commitments these students have to their communities,” says Professor Arkoudis.
“We get an inkling of this from the data that shows Indigenous students are much more likely to have dependents. It suggests that as we endeavour to address the under-representation of Indigenous students at university, we need to ensure the support they are getting is actually effective and takes into consideration the extra stresses they generally face,” says Professor Arkoudis.
International students also struggle
The data also shows that many international students are struggling financially.
“It challenges notions of international students being well supported financially compared to domestic students. Some are but many aren’t, and overall the data suggests that international students aren’t better off,” says Ms Marangell.
“International students do they tend to be more supported by their families and therefore unsurprisingly a slightly lower proportion report being worried about their finances. But also, a higher proportion face a deficit between income and expenses and they are almost just as likely to be skipping necessities (14 per cent).”
Professor Arkoudis says that while overall more students are coping financially, there are many students who are struggling.
“We have expanded the opportunities for students to go to university but for many it remains a stressful financial burden not just for students but also their families,” says Professor Arkoudis.
“Given the data, policy makers need to be considering what can be done to ease some of this burden because the increased opportunity to go to university also comes with considerable financial hardship for many students.”
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