The catchcry of an ‘Education Revolution’ may be popular in the Rudd government, but many university students are failing to see any hint of change in their everyday lives. In fact, many will be financially worse off after this week’s budget.
On paper, students are one of the big winners of the budget announcements. The government will inject billions into university infrastructure, changes to Youth Allowance are aimed to helping those who need it most and the new changes to the teacher to student ratio hopes to improve teaching and learning.
However, the Youth Allowance initiatives are “inadequate” and the government has “not done enough to address the real issues and needs of students” says Frances Lewis, Welfare Officer at the University of Melbourne’s Student Union.
New changes to Youth Allowance eligibility means that many students from middle income families will now miss out on benefits.
Currently students who earn 75% of the maximum Commonwealth training award payment are regarded as independent and can claim Youth Allowance payments. Meaning students often take a year off, work a bit and then start receiving Youth Allowance after their first semester at university, provided they’ve earned around $20,000 in that time period.
Should students be punished for choosing to take off a gap year and work? And is it assumed that all children from families with parents earning over $42,000 (hardly qualifying them as ‘high income earners’) have parents who are willing or able to support them? Many students take a gap year in a deliberate move to receive Youth Allowance payments and take the financial burden off their family.
Should university students be relying on their parents to support them? Not only can many parents not afford to support their children, many choose actively not to support them in order to encourage independence. Many parents, my own included, encourage students to move out of home and gain independence, knowing that Youth Allowance payments will help pay rent and buy food.
However the new changes mean that students whose parents earn more than $42,000 will now have to work 30 hours per week for at least 18 months in a two year period in order to qualify for Youth Allowance payments. How are students supposed to study sufficiently, attend classes and also work 30 hours per week? Students will be forced “to work more hours just to get a liveable wage” says Lewis.
Or, students will be required to delay their university degrees while they work 30 hours per week for 18 months, or until they are 22-years-old and qualify for the newly adjusted age of independence.
Although the government claims it “understands the importance of supporting young people to enhance their skills for the future”, no actual increase has been made to the Youth Allowance payments.
Current figures indicate that Youth Allowance payments already put students under the poverty line, which is $336.56 for a single person. The maximum fortnightly payment from Youth Allowance is $371.40 plus rent assistance to those living out of home (which has a maximum rate of $111.20 per fortnight). Students living at home receive $244.40.
One major reason that changes to the independence criteria have been adjusted is due to the supposed rorting by students from high income families who are living at home and receiving Youth Allowance. If students cannot qualify for Youth Allowance, it seems likely that there would be an increase of students living at home, already a constant complaint by the media about Generation Y.
I have received Youth Allowance payments for three-and-a-half years now, thanks to working during a gap year. Youth Allowance payments have given me the opportunity to study a semester in Spain, helping me to become fluent in Spanish — a language I learnt while travelling overseas during my gap year — surely a valuable skill in our global world. However, if these new rules had been in place five years ago I would never have received Youth Allowance. My outlook on life, my job skills and my education are all richer thanks to my Youth Allowance payments.
Some of the new Youth Allowance changes are long overdue, such as how much students can earn while receiving payments, payments for Masters students and scholarships for students who have to move to study. But the changes to the criteria for independence mean that many worthy and needy students will miss out on necessary financial support.
Students are already suffering financial burdens, particularly with the GFC and high unemployment rates. They do not need further strain on their low budgets. If this government really wants an Education Revolution, it needs to invest in education’s greatest asset — the students themselves.