There are many things I want to address about the Australia Governments 2016-2017 budget. Alongside only postponing fee deregulation for another year the government has released a paper entitled “Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education” to inform stakeholders and hope to influence the terms of the changes to higher education in the future.
Although the paper addresses some of the major problems faced in terms of fairness in higher education, for example equity for students from lower socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds and regional and rural backgrounds, and Aboriginal and Torres-Straight Islanders, it doesn’t do much to suggest an actual plan to see more of these groups attending higher education, particularly universities.
The paper outlines briefly a plan to improve infrastructure at regional universities to boost the number of students at those universities, while it states that institutions in the city already have enough infrastructure. While it would be great to improve regional higher education providers facilities to support students, I would strongly argue that institutions in major cities have enough key infrastructure to support these students. For example, one of the most important aspects that prevents these students attending universities is affordable accommodation close to campus. Affordable accommodation on campus or nearby affordable accommodation for students from SES, rural & regional and Aboriginal and Torres-Straight Islander backgrounds is utterly key to ensuring that they can attend tertiary education institutions. There is an inadequate number of subsidised accommodation for students from these backgrounds at many universities in Australia.
While expensive student accommodation does continue to be built, for example UrbanNest, which offers share twin share rooms from $340/week or even the Sydney University Village, with the lowest available room rate of $294/week per person (for a single room in a 4-5 bedroom apartment). These prices for accommodation are far outside the reach of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who receive approximately $433.20/fortnight or $216.60/week in living away from home Youth Allowance payments. Youth Allowance, which is meant to cover the cost of accommodation, food and bills for students living away from home, who are between the ages of 18 to 24 years old. If you live in a major city like Sydney, you would be very lucky indeed to find accommodation close to the University of New South Wales (UNSW) or University of Sydney (USYD) in the form of a room in a share house for less than $200/week, leaving you with $16.60 for food and bills. There is still also a small amount of rent assistance for people on low incomes, about $50 a fortnight. This still leaves little to live off, unless you can find a part-time job along side your already full time study load (and that’s not that easy in the current climate). Changes to Sunday penalty rates will also affect students on lower incomes who are working part time and casual jobs in hospitality. Many disadvantaged students cant even afford basics needed to their university studies, like broadband internet at home, expensive text books, up-to date laptops (most students will be able to find a way to purchase a secondhand computer or laptop to complete assignments on, within a price range of $200 – $300).
Full time students studying STEM courses, are usually on campus 4 full week days a week, which only leaves 3 days a week for them to earn enough money to cover the cost of living in the inner city, which realistically requires about $450/week minimum in a city like Sydney, more if you are living somewhere like UrbanNest. The breakdown would be something like $250 for rent, $100 for bills and public transport, and $100 for food and necessities. If a student finds cheaper accommodation, it is probably further away, which pushes up their public transport costs. If you don’t have access to cheaper supermarkets and food co-ops, the cost of food increases.
If the government and universities REALLY want to improve the percentage of students from SES, rural & regional and Aboriginal and Torres-Straight Islander backgrounds at universities, real affordable accommodation needs to be offered, not “affordable” accommodation, which requires the student has parents wealthy enough, or a flexible well paid part-time job to support them, which often in the case of these students, just is not the case.