Universities have undergone major change in recent years, from a time when campus life was vibrant to today when most students leave campus as soon as their classes finish.

This week at Monash University is “Green week” — the infamous drinking week where the beer is plentiful and the stories legendary. Turnout however has decreased in recent years, bringing cynics like myself to believe that if free beer can’t invoke student participation, nothing can.

Much of the decline of student life can be attributed to student poverty. Student Centrelink allowances are between $194.50 and $355.40 a fortnight — a measly sum given the rising costs of rent, fuel and food. And that’s before students fork out up to $1000 a semester on textbooks.

On top of this, not all students qualify. Simone Morrissey, the LaTrobe University student union’s Welfare Officer maintains that Centrelink payments are half the amount considered to be the ‘poverty line’. She says that “one in eight students regularly go without necessities due to poverty (and by necessities I mean food, study materials or paying bills).” 

Not only that but she’s been hearing stories of friends getting married to qualify for Centrelink benefits. Morrissey also notes that the free toast the student union gives out on Wednesday mornings is the “only meal some students eat that day”.

International students are in the same boat, with a staff member at the Monash University International Student Society musing that “not all international students are well off and many take out loans from their governments or families. And of course international students aren’t eligible for concession cards and are only allowed to work 20 hours a week.”

As a result, 85% of undergraduate students in 2006 worked part-time during their degrees, compared to only 50% of students in 1984. Additionally, more than half of students today work more than 13 hours per week, nearly triple the 1984 average. An alarming 22.7% of students regularly miss class or study for paid employment.

Extra pressure is felt by the students to undertake unpaid compulsory work placements as part of their courses. Some placements are hundreds of kilometres from home, forcing students to literally ‘save up’ to fund their accommodation, transport and food for their placement. A friend of mine spent a month on a teaching placement in Bendigo (more than two hours from his Melbourne home) at his own expense, having to commute back and forth to Melbourne to work on weekends in hospitality just to earn money to stay afloat for the week.

Also affecting student life is the increased competitiveness of graduate employment, with students expected to have exceptional grades and work experience. Law, engineering and financial firms offer highly-coveted vacation work, ensuring students constantly have their heads down, battling it out for positions to plump up their resumes or get a ‘foot in the door’ over the summer holidays.

Jason Leigh, the 2007 Monash Student Association Activities Coordinator believes that “there has been a cultural shift on campus from students treating University as a second high school and their last opportunity to get reckless, to a vocationally focussed and competitive environment. The culture that thrived during the free education of the 1980s is unsurprisingly struggling in a time where it is extremely difficult to get into courses that you end up paying through the teeth for.”

There is little wonder why we don’t hang around on campus. No one has the time or the money to be students anymore.