We’re still study­ing be­low the poverty line

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Scholarships -

IT’S ironic that many of us who ben­e­fited from a free univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion in the 1970s and ’ 80s are foot­ing the bill for the de­grees of our off­spring. A kind of HECS debt de­layed by decades.

My par­ents made no fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tion to­wards my up­keep when I was a stu­dent. In­deed, I was only able to com­mence ter­tiary study by win­ning an aca­demic schol­ar­ship.

In my sec­ond year th­ese were abol­ished by the gov­ern­ment, and re­placed with stu­dent al­lowances pro­vid­ing enough to live on, al­beit fru­gally, for any full­time stu­dent. Many stu­dents sup­ple­mented the al­lowance with vacation work, but those of us with 35 con­tact hours a week were spared the ne­ces­sity to take jobs dur­ing term.

The Howard Gov­ern­ment is mak­ing much of its latest tranche of higher- ed­u­ca­tion re­forms, the Re­al­is­ing Our Po­ten­tial fund­ing pack­age an­nounced in the 2007 bud­get.

It prom­ises an ad­di­tional $ 222 mil­lion to im­prove ac­cess to ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion for stu­dents by al­lo­cat­ing:

$ 91 mil­lion for wealth schol­ar­ships;

$ 87 mil­lion for rent as­sis­tance to Aus­tudy re­cip­i­ents; and

$ 43 mil­lion to ex­tend the el­i­gi­bil­ity for youth al­lowance and Aus­tudy.

Ex­pen­di­ture on Com­mon­wealth Learn­ing Schol­ar­ships ( to be re­named Com­mon­wealth Schol­ar­ships next year) has in­creased each year to a to­tal of more than $ 95.2 mil­lion in 2007.

com­mon- This con­sists of $ 37.5 mil­lion for Com­mon­wealth Ed­u­ca­tion Costs Schol­ar­ships and $ 57.8 mil­lion for Com­mon­wealth Ac­com­mo­da­tion Schol­ar­ships, with stipends of $ 2120 per an­num and $ 4240 per an­num re­spec­tively.

Yet when only 2.5 per cent of full- time un­der­grad­u­ates re­ceive th­ese schol­ar­ships, and the past six years have seen a de­crease in the num­ber of dol­lars de­rived from Cen­tre­link pay­ments, rent as­sis­tance and schemes such as Youth Al­lowance ( from $ 2419 to $ 2160), th­ese mea­sures are un­likely to much im­prove the fi­nan­cial hard­ship faced by stu­dents.

Dur­ing the same pe­riod, the amount of to­tal in­come from paid work rose from 51 per cent to 66 per cent. There was also an in­crease in parental as­sis­tance, with 60 per cent of stu­dents of­ten re­ly­ing on them for meals and free ac­com­mo­da­tion, and to a lesser ex­tent for tele­phone/ com­puter/ mo­tor ve­hi­cle use and text­books.

De­spite stu­dents spend­ing an av­er­age of 14.8 hours a week in poorly paid work with no rel­e­vance to their de­gree, their par­ents and part­ners still carry the bur­den of pro­vid­ing for their ba­sic needs, be­cause no com­bi­na­tion of gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance and al­lowed earn­ings can gen­er­ate suf­fi­cient in­come.

The sit­u­a­tion is al­le­vi­ated for the for­tu­nate few who win var­i­ous other un­der­grad­u­ate schol­ar­ships, but amounts are usu­ally less than $ 2000. A hand­ful reaches $ 5000 to $ 10,000, but in con­trast to more plen­ti­ful post­grad­u­ate stipends, just two of­fer sup­port above the poverty line for the du­ra­tion of study.

Th­ese are the $ 20,000 per an­num teach­ing schol­ar­ships from the Queens­land De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and the Arts, and the $ 22,744 an­nual med­i­cal rural bonded schol­ar­ships from the Com­mon­wealth De­part­ment of Health and Age­ing. The 122 re­cip­i­ents must com­mit to spend­ing the first four and six years, re­spec­tively, of their ca­reers in rural or re­mote lo­ca­tions. They alone, of Aus­tralia’s 624,156 un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents, or 0.02 per cent, re­ceive full fi­nan­cial sup­port from gov­ern­ment through their years of study. This is a dis­grace.

It is ad­mirable that ac­cess to ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion has ex­panded in re­cent years, but once over the thresh­old of schol­ar­ship el­i­gi­bil­ity, what then? Would it not make sense to en­able un­der­grad­u­ates to spend the bulk of their time study­ing?

The days of free ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion are gone, but its grad­u­ates are now the pol­icy mak­ers of to­day. What short mem­o­ries they must have, to al­lo­cate such mea­gre re­sources for stu­dent sup­port.

A re­view is in or­der — more schol­ar­ships with larger stipends for more stu­dents — to pro­duce more grad­u­ates more quickly.

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