Do Australian University Students Struggle?

December 13, 2008 by
Filed under: Australian News 

In the recent Sydney Morning Herald article article Too Many Uni Students Cry Poor,  economics editor Ross Gittins says “One group I’ve never had much sympathy for is self-pitying university students”.

I respect the old man, but he is really out of touch with the realities facing young people today. Are today’s Australian university students struggling more than students in previous decades? I say yes.

Degrees Are Worth Less Today

Contrary to what Ross Gittins says, having a degree these days does not even guarantee a job, let alone a high salary.

Tertiary qualifications are now the baseline

Decades ago, the Australian workforce had a vastly different composition – Many students left high school before before year 12 and without receiving their Higher School Certificate (HSC). There was a lot of unskilled work and many more people learnt a trade. There were also far fewer women in the workforce. Only a small elite chose to attend university to get a degree, and these people were snapped up by employers.

Today, things are very different. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics report on statistical trends in education for the state of NSW in 2007, 85% of students complete their HSC, and almost 40% of those between 20 and 25 years of age are enroled in post-secondary education. Degrees, Diplomas and TAFE Certificates are now assumed knowledge for a majority of careers.

Teaching Standards Have Fallen

The Government has cut university funding since the late 1980s, whereas during the same period, private sector salaries increased greatly. This has led to talented Australia academics deciding to quit academia.

In their desperation for money, Australian universities have increased their reliance on full fee-paying Interational students, mainly from Asia and the Middle East, who pay lots more than locals for the privilege of an Australian degree.

University course content, assignments and exams have been dumbed down over the years to help ensure that people finish and ‘get out the door’ with minimum delay.

An Oversupply of University Graduates

Due to the large number of people that have degrees and the lowering of teaching standards, graduates face far more scrutiny when seeking employment.

Today’s employers want candidates to have practical experience in a commercial setting, objective proof of competence and demonstrated achievement in their field.

One of the greatest ironies is that due to the shift towards university education, there are now shortages of tradespeople in Australia. Bricklayers and plumbers now earn more money than many degree-qualified professionals.

Living and Educational Expenses Have Increased

Gittins is correct in stating that HECS [university course fees] can be deferred, and are only repayable once a student has an income greater than a predefined threshold (about $41,000 per annum). However, there are many expenses that cannot be deferred.

Textbooks and Course Notes Are More Expensive and Frequently Updated

We live in an age of rapid obsolescence and changes in the legal and political landscape.

New editions of textbooks are released almost every year and these can cost up to $200 per book. Some courses require multiple textbooks. For a full-time university student who studies four courses per semester, this can amount to $2000 per year.

Learning Tools and Equipment

Today’s students need modern learning tools. Although Universities say that they are optional, in practice no student wants to be disadvantaged compared to their peers. Such tools include laptop computers, mobile phones and broadband Internet access.

Amortised over the period of a degree, these tools can cost anywhere between $500 to $2000 per year.

Accomodation in Capital Cities is Expensive

Some students can continue living with their parents. Others can’t – this may be because their university is not close to their home, or they have a partner, or simply want their independence. These people require accomodation.

Most of the large reputable Australian Universities are located in capital cities. Over the last 10 years, the asset price bubble pushed capital city property prices to atmospheric heights.

Relentless immigration coupled with a slowdown in new property development have resulted in rental costs exploding. In the eastern suburbs of Sydney, a 1-bedroom apartment now rents for $500/week.

Previous generations certainly did not have to deal with this.

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