It’s the personal accounts of students living in poverty that bring the reality home.
Among the scores of data and stories collected by the 2017 Universities Australia Student Finances Survey, ultimately it was their own words that spoke the loudest.
“I now often eat meals at university, rely on friends to bring food over, or pay for the ingredients so I can cook for them,” one Indigenous student told our survey researchers. “I don’t eat much anymore.”
And they are not alone. One in seven Australian university students told us they regularly go without food because they cannot afford it.
That’s just one of the findings from 18,500 students about their day-to-day finances.
Indigenous students and those from a disadvantaged or rural background are among those living with the toughest financial situations.
One in four Indigenous students regularly can’t afford to eat or buy other essentials. And almost one in five students from the poorest quarter of Australian households were forced to skip meals.
Lazy stereotypes would paint a picture of students living the high life – hitting the bars instead of the books.
This simply isn’t the reality. Rather than living it up, a lack of money means many students are struggling just to get by.
As our survey shows, a significant proportion of our university students face financial struggles — with students from poorer backgrounds, Indigenous and regional students hardest hit.
As one undergraduate student told us: “The stress of constantly worrying about how to pay next (month’s) rent or simply paying for food is really hard.”
A postgraduate student undertaking a higher degree by research was even more bleak: “I am seriously considering deferring or withdrawing from my study due to extreme hardship.”
The median annual income for full-time undergraduate students is $18,300 – well below the poverty line.
While the overall financial circumstances of students overall appear to have improved slightly since our last survey in 2012, this is because students are spending less while their incomes have stalled.
Unsurprisingly then, 60 per cent of students say their finances make them worry. One-third of them estimate their living costs exceed their income.
Students have to pay rent and bills and keep food on the table – including to support their own children, all while juggling paid jobs and study. So many university students are older or have family or carer responsibilities than was previously the case.
Education is meant to come first when you are studying; for students living on the financial edge, that’s simply not possible.
Financial stress means some students are missing classes to work, with the need to work adversely affecting their university performance. Some students are also deferring their degrees or cutting their study loads to juggle their finances.
At its most extreme, financial pressure is leaving some students homeless.
And precarious financial circumstances take a real toll on campus communities all over Australia. It can mean students don’t complete their degrees or abandon study because they simply don’t have the financial means to be part of campus life and society.
And for Australia, it potentially means we lose some of the talented, smart and driven individuals the country needs for our future wellbeing and prosperity.
This is one of the reasons why the peak body for Australia’s universities has commissioned a survey like this every five years or so since the mid-1970s.
Our students should have the basic financial security to thrive at university. University is an enriching experience – it broadens minds, it challenges us, it expands our knowledge and sharpens our skills.
But it’s hard for a student to make the most of those opportunities when consumed by worry about whether they can afford their next meal or the rent that’s due next week.