Poverty as described by Australian students

This article on the appalling poverty suffered by Australian students found its way into my Twitter timeline:

Molly Willmott, 19, has been going to job interviews fruitlessly for a year and a half now.

Retail. Hospitality. Spends her time trawling employment websites. She went for one job as a telemarketer. Another as a warehouse assistant.

She’s in Melbourne. Most of these jobs are held by people whose names are hard to pronounce, brought in under policies favoured by Australian progressives.

“It’s rough,” says the politics and sociology major at the University of Melbourne.

Progressives like those studying politics and sociology, for example. But at least, in trawling employment websites for menial jobs, Molly is getting valuable experience on what she’ll be doing once she graduates.

“There’s that stereotype of a student surviving on two-minute noodles and it’s very true. I know a lot of people who’ve had to sacrifice food to be able to pay rent and bills. It’s more common than you think.

Property prices and rents in Melbourne are absolutely extortionate, mainly thanks to government policies favoured by the middle classes whose sons and daughters go to university.

Willmott, who lives with her mother and two siblings in a rented house in Melbourne’s south-east, acknowledges she is one of the lucky ones.

“I am in a very privileged position to be able to go home and have my family there just in case. I don’t like asking them for money but if push came to shove I can do that.”

The UK is somewhat unusual in that it is normal for people to go to another city to study; in a lot of countries people simply go to the university in their town. Because of this, there is usually plenty of cheap(ish) student accommodation in British university towns. I don’t know how things work in Australia, but it seems to me there is a scarcity of student accommodation in Melbourne.

But the luxury of living at home in the suburbs means it’s more than a three-hour round trip to trek to campus in inner-city Parkville, via three different modes of public transport.

“I take bus, train, tram and something’s always late. Travel alone takes a third of what money I have. It just drains away throughout the week.”

Rents are cheaper the further you go from a city centre, but you spend more on transport. This is not a trade-off unique to students.

She’s looking to move out within the next six months, partly because jobs have proven hard to come by where she lives, but she’s not sure how she’ll afford to move.

Jobs are hard to come by in a city where the minimum wage is around $15 per hour for a 19 year old part-timer with no experience. I can’t think why.

Her fortnightly budget has a lot of holes. There’s nothing allocated for clothing, and Centrelink loans for textbooks have been used to buy warm clothes for winter.

“Centrelink has an optional $1,300 loan to buy textbooks every semester. I’ve used that to buy clothes so I can be warm through winter and given rest to my mum. There’ve been times I haven’t been able to buy textbooks and readers.

Hang on. I’ve lived through a Melbourne winter and it’s not that bad. And she’s from Melbourne: it’s not like she’s moved down from Brisbane and had to buy a raincoat for the first time in her life. What was she wearing before she went to university? Do you really need to spend $1,300 on winter clothes in your hometown?

I’ve got so much anger about the treatment of students by the Government at the moment. The welfare system is incredibly underfunded and understaffed. When I got my Youth Allowance I needed to get it urgently. I needed to start uni and buy textbooks and it took four months for that to go through.

A 19 year old is living in one of the world’s most expensive cities and having to borrow money to buy politics and sociology textbooks. Somebody is being fleeced here all right, but unless she’s angry at the government over job-destroying labour laws, insane housing policies, and unnecessary credentialism I think she might have picked the wrong target. Go and ask your tutors why, in the age of electronic publishing and the internet, you need to spend a grand on politics textbooks.

The Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge, says waiting times will be cut by the 250 additional Centrelink call centre staff announced in the federal budget. He says massive investment in technology has halved wait times for Youth Allowance and Abstudy claims.

Government creates an unsatisfactory solution to address a problem largely of said government’s own making; affected persons nevertheless demand more government.

Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham, said his message to students was clear: “Taxpayers, including those who have never been to university, will continue to pay the majority of your fees for going to university.”

“And taxpayers will pay all of the cost of your student loan up front and not expect you to repay it until you’re actually firmly in the workforce, on track hopefully in your career. If we’re to preserve all of those opportunities for the future we need to ensure the higher education system is financially sustainable.”

Blimey! I didn’t expect that: well said, sir!

Three or four hours’ work a week at the local McDonald’s doesn’t help much.

“It really is borderline impossible to find a decent job. Most places want younger people. McDonald’s — even cafes and stuff — they want to pay junior wages. Or they hire lots of people but then they only give you one shift a week.

Minimum wage laws allow firms to pay 19 year olds less than 21 year olds, thus pricing 21 year olds out of the market. If only there were a branch of academia that could explain all this.

Or they hire lots of people but then they only give you one shift a week.

“It’s that whole underemployment figure. If you earn under a certain amount they don’t have to put in for your super.”

Employers look at the total cost of employing somebody and set shift patterns accordingly? Whoever would have thought?

Colee once had savings from a $9-an-hour traineeship at her local council during a gap year, but that’s gone.

She had a gap year? Why didn’t she get a full-time job?

Right now there is $23 in the bank. Her pay won’t deposit for another couple of days. Rent is due in three.

Here is a picture of her stood in her kitchen. Tell me, does this look like a student hovel to you?

Okay, I’ll not pretend I didn’t live in a very nice flat when I was a student, thanks to a generous father (cheers Dad!) and a flatmate who came from money. But that kitchen above is bigger and smarter than any I’ve seen in Paris and looks as though it belongs to a detached 2 or 3 bedroom house. There looks to be a stainless steel dishwasher in there, FFS! My guess is the “student” accommodation in Australian cities has been snapped up by people from China and the Indian sub-continent who are working full-time, and Australian students don’t even know such lodgings exist. I’m thinking back to the student kitchens I saw at university, and they didn’t look much like the one above. There are no slug trails across the surfaces, to start with.

There is no allowance in Colee’s budget for social activities.

“If I want to go to the pub, I’ll buy a pint of cider which is $9 and drink that all night.

So there’s no money for social activities except for drinking cider at $9 per pint. Back in 1996 I used to buy beer for a quid a pint; I know that was a long time ago and it was in Manchester, but where are all the cheapo student bars in Australia? Or has the nanny state banned them?

“It’s meant to be the best time of your life. You’re constantly told you should go to university while you’re young. You’re told at school it’s everything, that you can do this if you study hard. Then you get there and realise you have to basically buy your way into university because you can’t afford to live without help.

“It’s really hard to struggle in this sort of way and then be told by the Government that I chose this because I wanted to get an education.”

An education in International Studies.

[Welfare advisor Stuart Martin] says government policy on the issue was too often “hollow rhetoric from politicians who are not held accountable for their statements”.

“We have far too many people in Parliament who have sucked for free at the teat of the state and still trot out this mantra about self reliance.

Quite. When do the hangings take place, and do I bring my own knitting or will it be handed out free?

“Things are even harder if you happen to come from a disadvantaged background or have other struggles in your life.

“If you have a mental health condition or family obligations that make it difficult to keep a part-time job, then your grip on study is extremely shaky.

If you have mental health problems that prevent you holding down a part-time job, should you really be going to university?

“Education is seen as the thing that breaks the poverty barrier,” says the 21-year-old, who is studying history and sociology at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus.

Another useful subject.

“You have parents making sacrifices to give their children an education, only for students to find once they enter the system it’s just gradual entrenchment of poverty.”

One would have thought there would be a lot more attention paid to what was being studied under such circumstances, but apparently not.

He makes sure to shop at a low budget supermarket, spending $10–20 once or twice a week.

Surplice is lucky enough to have a car. A second-hand Mazda he bought from his aunt. “It gets me from point A to B,” he says. “It’s got fuel in the tank.”

A poverty-stricken student with a car.

However, he’s sometimes had to go without insurance or rely on the charity of family to pay his registration.

Oh marvellous! So if he maims somebody or deprives them of their only vehicle when he’s driving about uninsured, that’s their tough shit!

“It’s everyday student culture for people to be saying, you know, ‘I’m so broke this week’. You’ll hear it from 10 different people in one walk through the student union.”

Have any of them been t-boned by an uninsured driver?

There’s a lot of time spent in his bedroom at home, or between different volunteer positions on and off campus. Active in the labour and union movements, every Monday is set aside for campaigning. There are also volunteer shifts as a tour guide at a Buddhist temple. The odd bit of cash-in-hand work.

A labour and union activist who engages in cash-in-hand work to supplement his own income. Principled.

“You have to put extra effort into extracurricular stuff to get noticed by employers. I’m the president of two university clubs, which means my ability to look for work is restricted to non-existent.”

Try studying a proper subject. And note there is enough time to be a labour and union activist, but not enough time to look for a job.

It’s not just the financial cost, Surplice says, but the psychological effect.

“I cannot envision my future. Don’t get me wrong — I’d like to one day be settled down in a house with a partner, but the actual practicality of even a simple existence like that? I have nothing but anxiety.”

I once worked with a guy who was sent to fight in Vietnam when he was 18. A lot of his friends didn’t come back. This chap is 21.

National Union of Students president Sophie Johnston says it’s time to “acknowledge the failures from successive governments that have left today’s young people far worse off than generations before us”.

“This generation will be the first priced out of the housing market, our penalty rates are being cut, underemployment is rife and we’ve seen drastically low wage growth for decades.

She is complaining that penalty rates – legally mandated pay levels – are being cut while complaining of unemployment in the same sentence. Hurray for university education!

“Today’s young people are not asking for a free ride, we are merely asking to be afforded the same opportunities as generations before us.”

Ask Grandad which university he went to, what his weekly wage was, and what his house was like.

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29 thoughts on “Poverty as described by Australian students

  1. A Melbourne winter can be bitterly cold as it’s so wet – it’s a bit like Britain that way. My coldest three times in my life were, in order of most bitter first: on Hadrian’s Wall midwinter at 6 a.m., minus 37 trying to get the car started in Russia … and a football match at Waverley Park, Melbourne, even tucked inside sleeping bags with hoods.

  2. A Melbourne winter can be bitterly cold as it’s so wet – it’s a bit like Britain that way.

    Oh yes, having sailed the waters of Port Phillip in winter, I’m well aware. It’s cold, and wet, but not $1,300 cold and wet.

  3. This word Schadenboner (better in fraktur: 𝕾𝖈𝖍𝖆𝖉𝖊𝖓𝖇𝖔𝖓𝖊𝖗 ) is an unpleasant american neologism, but it does pretty much describe my feelings reading about the troubles of the pweshus snowflakes in the original article.

    The only thing that causes me to feel a slight bit of sympathy is that clearly these individuals have not been taught basic sums and instead learned about the magic money tree.

  4. As a comparison, my nephew has been staying with us for most of the year. His father wasted away and died of Huntington’s disease as he was growing up, lots of things not quite right for him. Anyhow he needed a new lease of life and we offered to take him in and the original plan was for him to move to Brisbane and find a job. Although his plan changed and he is now going to some sort of yooni and has some part time work in restaurants, I wasn’t part of this decision but didn’t want to put a damper on it when he got accepted but couldn’t figure out how he would make it work. We were quite happy to help him get his life back in order and still are but the time had come for him to move out at the weekend.

    So, he got a room in a townhouse for $170pw, I tried to do a budget for him but couldn’t get through to him on this point. I don’t think the numbers are going to add up for him and it’s a bit of a worry, plus he is 28 and there is chance that he will have the disease, both siblings chose not to take the test, the only time they would is if they were considering having children. He has this kind of obsession to go to yooni, his younger sister is also going to yooni in Brisbane, she also stayed with us for a while in her first year. She is doing well has good work cash flow, socialite and is living the life maybe this is what he is trying to emulate. I am concerned that he has made things too hard for himself and it may not work out and this could set him back in life again. We will try our best to make sure that he is okay but I just don’t get this obsession with yooni and why folk think that it is the be all and end-all.

    I have many family members that have attended university for all of the right reasons and that has worked well but this mind set of yooni or bust is just wrong. Another nephew of mine has done exceptionally well in the British University system; he was out here last year on a working holiday and was working for my company. One of the owners took a liking to him and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and he will be returning here to start with us full time as an engineer in September. So, there you have the contrast and all under my roof so to speak, you think you would be able to better influence these things against the downside but life doesn’t seem to be like that.

    And as for Melbourne student accommodation, this is more like it.

    http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/melbournes-slumlords-find-new-ways-to-profiteer-20160311-gnh36x.html

  5. It was all going so well until you implied that it doesn’t rain in Brizzie. It’s a two-season city: the Dry and the Wet. The Dry is wonderful weather – perhaps the best we’ve ever lived in. The Wet is horrible: fungus on your skin horrible.

    But back to Melbn: if you’re not going to study a serious subject – medicine, maths, engineering, and such – then at least get a humanities education that’s worthwhile – philosophy, history, classics, modern languages and so on. Don’t fanny about with crap like sociology. (That’s advice to all Tim’s seventeen year old readers.)

    As for term-time jobs: I planned to work in the vacations, not during term. I made one exception, the unturndownable offer of a job as a bodyguard to a stripper. All that was so long ago that some might feel that my experience is irrelevant. But being eighteen doesn’t change all that much, I suspect.

  6. It was all going so well until you implied that it doesn’t rain in Brizzie.

    I didn’t say that: I said you didn’t need a raincoat. Not quite the same thing. 😉

  7. A decent fisking, as ever, but you’ve lived in Melbourne so you know pub prices are an absolute scandal in Australia, whether you’re a student or not.
    Source: heading back to Perth and $12 pints after a few months in Korea drinking Hiite for W2,500/pint (about $2.50) 🙁
    I’ve been through the menial job / minimum wage thing in Australia too, moving there from the UK at the age of 22 and being shocked to discover all the casual work was only available to 15-year-olds, as the minimum wage meant I was too expensive.
    Like you say, if only there was a branch of academia that could explain all this…

  8. ““If I want to go to the pub, I’ll buy a pint of cider which is $9 and drink that all night.”

    Jeez. The phrase “don’t know they’re born” springs to mind.

    When I got my first job, my wife and I had a budget for each week, and IF there was anything left over at the end we’d walk to the pub and have ONE PINT EACH. Usually, there wasn’t, so we didn’t.

    Suck it up, snowflakes…

  9. @Dearieme “the unturndownable offer of a job as a bodyguard to a stripper.” Could you elaborate on that?

  10. The girl feared assault by sexually aroused members (!) of the audience. My job was to persuade them to desist.

  11. And as for the picture, she’s clearly not struggling to find food either.

  12. Here was I thinking being a uni student was, in part, about surviving on very little. In NZ, there is a university in Dunedin where some research showed the average temperature of a student flat in winter was colder than a fridge.

  13. I keep telling my children to piss away their pocket money on cocaine, whores and fines for fottball hooliganism, gender studies etc
    But will they listen. Will they fvck- They are saving up for shit like computering, economics and stuff. One of them even wants to become an engineer FFS.

    Kids these days.

  14. Excellent fisking, Mr Newman

    I don’t know if you’re aware of the Last Psychiatrist, but it reminded me very much of this entry:

    http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2012/11/hipsters_on_food_stamps.html

    Key quote from the first section, which seems to nicely cover all the aspirational sociology buffs: “the economy did not tell you to go to college for something you knew in advance would make you unemployable, especially when that unemployable choice cost exactly the same as the employable choice, i.e. too much”

    (Long time lurker, first time poster … I hate to use my first post with a reference to somewhere else, but hopefully it is of interest. Top notch blogging)

  15. One assumes that thinking is no longer taught in Australian universities, otherwise the article might be a lot shorter;

    Q. Why is there such a lack of affordable student accommodation in Australia?
    A. Government intervention in the housing market.

    Q. Why are there so few entry-level jobs for young people in Australia?
    A. Government intervention in the labour market.

    Q. What’s the solution to both problems?
    A. Erm, more government intervention in markets?

    I really like Australians, bless ’em, but they do all seem to wake up every morning with the assumption that absolutely everything that they perceive as being not ideal is best solved by the government.

    I mean, it’s not as if they’re faced with any compelling evidence of governmental incompetency, corruption or inefficiency on a daily or even hourly basis, eh?

  16. “there is a university in Dunedin”

    I visited it recently, it is quite a splendid building and is the furthest away yooni from London anywhere in the world.

    “but they do all seem to wake up every morning with the assumption that absolutely everything that they perceive as being not ideal is best solved by the government.”

    The other one of the same ilk is that a problem is fixed by taxing it.

    And I wish all the poms a very happy Tax Freedom Day on Friday.

  17. And as for Melbourne student accommodation, this is more like it.

    You often hear the same stories in London, and journalists and local councillors are unanimous in their condemnation. What they never figure out is that the people living in them are the low-level workers they have brought in to do the menial jobs the locals won’t do (or have been priced out of doing) and these people are coming from countries where the living conditions are similar to that of the slum they now find themselves in. They talk about exploited workers, but where did they expect menial workers from the 3rd world to be living? In Eureka Tower?

    The slum accommodation is simply a symptom of ludicrously high property prices and immigration policies, both of which are fully endorsed by the middle classes and the governments who represent them.

  18. A decent fisking, as ever, but you’ve lived in Melbourne so you know pub prices are an absolute scandal in Australia, whether you’re a student or not.

    Oh don’t I know it. I occasionally used to drink in the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron where I was a member: being a private club the booze was just above cost, it was great.

  19. And as for the picture, she’s clearly not struggling to find food either.

    I was wondering who would point that out.

  20. I don’t know if you’re aware of the Last Psychiatrist, but it reminded me very much of this entry:

    I’m not, but now I am! Thanks!

    (Long time lurker, first time poster … I hate to use my first post with a reference to somewhere else, but hopefully it is of interest. Top notch blogging)

    Ooh, thanks!

  21. ‘If you have mental health problems that prevent you holding down a part-time job, should you really be going to university?’

    This. So very much this.

  22. A small aside; slums were never built as slums. They were built as affordable housing for the time and place with the space available and with what facilities at the time everyone had. Maybe it was all a long time ago, but just pulling things down because they are old (when still in use) is poor policy. No one set out to make these places terrible; that happened over a period of time as better homes were built and people became mobile enough to go there and still get to work.

  23. On my last trip to Sydney two months ago I was paying the same for a beer as in Pattaya. The difference is you get a naked lady with it in Pattaya.

  24. I’d certainly caution in favour of thinking seriously about the value of a university education versus learning to do something useful.
    When it comes down to it, all a degree gives you is software & a database running on a meatware computer. How long before someone writes ‘ware, does the same job, runs on silicon? Cheap than the meat, there goes another career.
    Wonder how much it’d cost to build a robot plumber? 5 million? And you’d still need a tech to de-bug it every couple of hours, every time it ran into something not in its algorithms.

  25. Who persuades these kids and their parents that Uni is a must, so they sign up to whatever course they can get accepted on? And with no apparent regard to cost?
    Why, schoolteachers of course. and all schoolteachers went to Uni. Few teachers get employed without a degree, even if they are to teach five year olds their letters.
    So effectively the education industry has thirty hours a week, thirty weeks a year, for thirteen years advertising to impressionable youngsters how wonderful it is. Give the automotive industry that sort of advertising reach and you could forget about fuel economy, or saving the planet.
    Trouble is most politicians etc. have degrees and have succeeded in life. They attribute the success to the education, whereas most of them like most of us would have done just as well without it. But wishing to benefit people they promote education as beneficial to all, whereas its actually beneficial mainly to teachers/lecturers.

  26. The UK is somewhat unusual in that it is normal for people to go to another city to study; in a lot of countries people simply go to the university in their town.

    When I went to university in Australia (30 years ago, gulp), it was normal for Australians to go to the university in their town, if it offered the course that they wanted to study. It was *extremely unusual* for Australians to go to a university in a different state, to the extent that universities in different states didn’t automatically recognise matriculations exams from other states. “Student accommodation” therefore existed for students from rural areas who were studying in cities, or it existed for foreign students.

    Things have changed, though, and students now often do go to university in other towns and other states. It is possible that the housing market has not responded to this. In fact, given how rigged the Australian housing market it, I can’t imagine that it can respond to anything.

    Back in 1996 I used to buy beer for a quid a pint; I know that was a long time ago and it was in Manchester, but where are all the cheapo student bars in Australia? Or has the nanny state banned them?

    No, it is more the existing publicans lobby (the Australian Hotel Association) that has banned them. The bureaucratic obstacles (planning laws and liquor licensing laws) to opening bars are such that it is indeed almost impossible to open a cheapo student bar, but this is due to obstacles erected to protect existing business owners. Also very Australian.

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