Like many young Aussies, Jess moved from a small town to study in the city. She was shocked by the unique financial barriers she faced. Jess runs some numbers to reveal how tough it really is for young people on this familiar journey.
When I was 17, I graduated high school and moved out of home. It was just like in the movies–my best friends and I packed our bags, rented a share house, and left the small regional town of our childhood behind for the bright lights of the big city. It felt like a rite of passage; the logical step into the next phase of life and growing up. I was so excited.
It wasn’t until I began making new friends at university that I realised my life was actually very different to the majority of my classmates. It came as a shock to learn that most people I met had grown up in the vicinity of the city and were still living at home.
While this difference wasn’t necessarily evident in our everyday interactions, as I worked my way through my degree it became clear just how much simpler some things were for those who lived at home. And I was lucky–my humanities degree had relatively low contact hours, meaning I was able to work two or three days each week in an office job while also staying on top of my studies.
I was also fortunate in that my parents were able to provide me with some financial assistance if I needed it. For those studying a more time-intensive course or without potential financial support from family, it is a lot more complicated.
Of course, many of my friends who lived at home worked or volunteered multiple days a week as well. Some of them paid ‘board’ to live at home with their parents, but for the most part, their jobs were a way to gain experience, save money to get a head start in the housing market, or to fund overseas holidays. When uni became more demanding, many were able to reduce their hours of work in order to prioritise their studies.
I had to get a job
For me, and for other students from a regional background, not working was simply not an option. Centrelink Youth Allowance helps, of course. Depending on your circumstances you can receive a maximum of $455.20 per fortnight, or $910.40 per month plus relocation assistance.
According to my alma mater, the University of Queensland, the average cost of renting in an off-campus share house ranges from $480 to $1000 per month.
Let’s say your accommodation is squarely in the middle, at $740 per month. The university also provides handy cost estimates of living expenses including food, utilities, mobile phones, internet, transport, photocopying, recreation, personal items and health.
Even using their lowest estimated cost of each of these, your monthly expenses sit at around $1935, including rent. Factoring in the $910.40 from Centrelink there’s still a gap of $1024.60, meaning not working isn’t an option unless you either have a scholarship or take out a loan.
Depending on how much your casual job pays, you probably need to work a minimum of around 10-12 hours per week (assuming you’re able to find a job, which is a feat in itself). In my degree, where I had roughly 15 contact hours per week, this was perfectly doable. For those who had classes every day however, I don’t know how this would be possible without seriously compromising either study time, sleep, or other commitments.
Then there’s unpaid internships
While studying a humanities degree had its advantages in terms of a lighter class load, my degree and subsequent job prospects had a heavy emphasis on internships. Sometimes internships were for course credit. Other times they were pursued with the aim of gaining experience, contacts and industry knowledge, thereby improving employment prospects post-university. Experience is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills.
For me, undertaking a 10-day internship meant effectively taking two weeks off from my part-time job. Since I was a casual working 20 hours a week with no paid leave, this meant my fortnightly income was reduced by roughly $1000. Again, I was privileged in that my parents could offer me support and I had no expensive, non-negotiable needs, but this isn’t the case for everybody. For many, unpaid internships are simply not an option, and some are even unlawful.
Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that attending university in Australia is a privilege, and I am
immeasurably lucky to have done so. Moving out of home for university has a lot of positives: you develop independence, resilience, and learn important life skills.
It’s also incredibly tough at times, due in large part to financial pressure, and this is something our government and educational institutions have a responsibility to address. If they don’t, the gap in opportunities for those who grow up in the city compared to those who grow up in the country will only continue to increase.