Graduates face poverty and underemployment after finishing their degrees

A typical student living in shared accomodation and receiving the maximum support payment has to survive on very little.

Tertiary students are doing it tough. Yet the Coalition would have you believe we have it easy. High — and getting higher — course fees, job insecurity and accommodation costs are all adding to students’ anxieties.

A National Union of Students’ (NUS) submission to the 2015-16 federal budget showed that a typical student, living in shared accommodation and receiving the maximum income support payments, is surviving at just half the Henderson Poverty Line which, for a single adult in 2012, was an income of less than $400 a week.

A 2012 Universities Australia (UA) survey of students showed the same disturbing trend. Overall, it found that two-thirds of students are living below the poverty line.

It also found that 46% of non-Indigenous full-time students were receiving at least some Youth Allowance or AUSTUDY payment; more than two-thirds were worried about their financial situation; and 17% reported regularly going without food because they were unable to afford it.

The UA survey also found that 80.6% of domestic full-time graduates were employed, a decrease from the 85.5% reported in 2006. It also found the average hours worked during semester by all full-time students who were in employment had increased.

Half of those surveyed said their performance at university suffered because they had to work more hours. One in three domestic students and one in six international students reported they regularly missed classes to go to work.

Campus student organisations also reported problems resulting from students being homeless and that free breakfasts and other meals provided by campus are heavily patronised.

Prevalence of sexual assault

The NUS Women’s Department also released the results of a study, Talk About It, in February which probed women’s experiences at university.

Seventy per cent of those surveyed reported experiences of harassment, sexual assault or violence at universities. The overwhelming view was that services needed to be improved.

It also found that financial difficulties, health problems and family responsibilities have a big impact on women students, affecting their ability to participate in, and succeed at, university.

Included in its 15 recommendations is an immediate increase in Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy, inclusive of rental assistance to at least 100% of the Henderson Poverty Line. It also urged an increase in funding and accessibility to disability support payments.

Channel Seven’s Sunday Night on October 9 exposed just how widespread sexual assault and rape is on Australian university campuses. The report revealed that Freedom of Information requests issued to universities had uncovered 575 cases of sexual violence, a quarter of which relate specifically to rape on campuses in the last five years.

However, only six resulted in an expulsion, 14 resulted in suspension and “the vast majority of reported rape and harassment cases appear to have gone completely unpunished”. The report also listed the results for each university that complied with the FOI request.

The program was a follow up to an independent documentary, The Hunting Ground, which exposed the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses and the lengths universities go to cover it up and blame victims for the assaults.

Fee deregulation

The Coalition government may look like it has shelved its draconian plans for fee deregulation but it is looking into how to implement them. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has just appointed an “expert panel” to propose an “implementable policy”.

Following the widespread student and community backlash in 2014 over former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his education minister Christopher Pyne’s attempt to fully deregulate undergraduate fees and impose a 20% cut — that’s $3.2 billion — to higher education, Turnbull and education minister Simon Birmingham’s approach may seem different. But they all want the same thing — to speed up the privatisation of tertiary education.

The Coalition wants to take over the TAFE system from the states so that it can more easily be privatised. Turnbull wants to deregulate TAFE fees and ensure that TAFEs receive the same level of funding as private colleges.

The federal government is also adding to young people’s woes with its proposed $6.1 billion cuts in welfare payments over four years.

News.com.au is also running a campaign against young dole-bludging “NEETs” — people who are not currently in education, employment or training.

An “interview” with two young women from Mt Druitt, who told the News.com.au journalist that they refused to look for work and were happy to “chill” at McDonald’s was sensationalised by the Daily Telegraph until the father of one of the girls clarified that both girls had just graduated high school, were working and had plans for tertiary education. Understandably, they had not wanted to reveal all to the “journalist”.

Currently, there are 580,000 NEETs, an increase of 100,000 since 2008. One in eight Australians aged 15 to 29 are considered to be NEETs. Many lack employment skills.  

But it is hardly the fault of young people. According to an August government study, young people have borne the brunt of softening in the labour market since the global financial crisis.

Youth underemployment is 3.4 times higher than it was 20 years ago and it now takes young Australians 4.7 years to transition from full-time education to full-time work.

There is no doubt that young people, students and workers are up against some huge barriers. Economically, there does not seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Where there is hope, however, is where grassroots and community mobilisations — on and off campus — have managed to pressure governments and university administrations to back away from anti-social austerity policies, which especially affect young people. These include successful divestment campaigns and occupations to stop courses being cut, such as the current campaign for the Sydney College of the Arts.

Resistance is involved in many of these campaigns. It is committed to helping organise, in an inclusive way, to get more young people involved in growing these struggles because that, in the end, is the only way we will get a good education and decent employment.