By Tayla Wilson
“I dream about buying new underwear… the simplest thing.”
Georgie Wilton is among the two-thirds of university students living below the poverty line, according to the most recent Australian University Student Finances Survey.
The social work student at RMIT University says she earns just enough to pay her rent and wouldn’t survive without the the support of others. “My housemates pay more rent than they should so that I can live here,” she says.
“I’m very fortunate that I have resources within my family, and I’ve got a very strong support network of friends who might shout me meals”.
Like one in five students, Wilton says she sometimes skips meals.
This year, she is undertaking an unpaid 500-hour placement at the Melbourne City Mission, an outreach for young people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness.
“Although I think it’s really valuable doing placement and to have that work experience, I think it’s unreasonable to do 500 hours of unpaid work.”
“I was quite vocal when we had meetings about placement, when one of the teachers asked if we had any questions I put my hand up and asked how are we meant to survive? Some students may become homeless. And they were quite taken aback by that, but that’s the reality.”
“I’m fortunate that my housemates are willing to pay extra rent for me. Anyone who is independent would struggle to do it,” Wilton says.
Swinburne student welfare officer Aura-Elle Marais agrees. “It has become largely more stressful and financially straining to pursue an education as an independent adult,” she says.
Marais says that while the typical student lifestyle has always been synonymous with easy living and the best time of your life, that may no longer be true. “I think, in general, students struggle to earn enough to support themselves sustainably,” she says.
“In order for many students to live relatively comfortably, some are forced to work multiple jobs, study less units, move to outer suburbs and make the trip of up to two hours to uni each way.”
Wilton travels up to 90 minutes each way by train to her placement in Sunshine four days a week. “If I drove it would probably be quicker but I can’t afford to drive,” she says.
“Because I love the placement the travel doesn’t really bother me; I just sort of deal with it. I’ve negotiated with them to leave a little bit early so I can get home in a decent amount of time.”
Del Allahyari, who is also studying social work at RMIT University, also attends placement four days a week.
She studies two units on campus and works part-time at Kmart 20 hours a week, mostly working shifts in the evenings after her placement.
“It becomes difficult when employers want full availabilities, a commitment that no student can realistically make without compromising their academics, missing classes and half engaging in the actual university experience,” Marais says.
Allahyari says: “I struggle to find time to do everything. I sometimes have to do my assignments on break at placement or even stay up the night. I know some of my classmates who have had to drop all of their units because they couldn’t juggle placement and university study.
“Because there’s so much to do I personally struggle a bit. If I was just doing placement it would be a lot easier, but as a student I need financial support.”
Wilton says she is underemployed, working two hours a week as a carer for a client experiencing mental health issues.
Like 45,277 other Australians, she receives Austudy payments to help cover her living expenses, but says that the benefits aren’t enough.
The highest payment for someone in Wilton’s situation is $445.80 a fortnight.
Georgie Wilton is one of the 45,278 Australians receiving Austudy payments, according to the Department of Social Services Payment Demographic Data of September 2017.
According to the data, 202,387 Australian students and apprentices aged 16-24 receive Youth Allowance payments.
Wilton says if she had one wish, she would increase these payments. “Austudy hasn’t changed over the years, whereas rent has increased significantly. I think that it was set up in a time when it was financially easier. I’m constantly saying ‘I can’t afford to do that; I don’t have time to do that’.
“If you have to spend a lot of time studying, it’s really valuable to have time to yourself to be with friends or do whatever else. Your mental health is really important.”
“At the moment I have weekends to myself but that’s about to change. I will soon hopefully be working on Sundays as well,” Wilton says.
Like Allahyari, Wilton also studies two units on campus, but says she isn’t as engaged as she should be.
“The last two years I had been really focused, but now with placement that’s sort of been my main priority,” she says. “I am finding it really difficult coming home after a day of work and trying to apply myself to my studies, just continually being switched on. Because it’s so challenging financially, you just want to get it done as soon as possible.”
She says her current circumstances have taken a toll on her health. “It’s pretty stressful… it shows on my body. I have psoriasis and it will flare up when I’m in stressful situations, so since I’ve started uni.
“It’s also impacted on my wellbeing, I get very stressed and overreact to things… it’s just really challenging.
Allahyari shares similar feelings. “It sometimes feels like it’s too much, like I’m losing my mind.”
“I’m really tired and stressed. I know I am overloading myself, and my body feels numb because of it. But I just push myself to do it, I can’t say that it’s easy.”
“We shouldn’t have to do 1000 hours of placement just for Social Work, I couldn’t afford to leave my part time job.”
“Myself and my classmates have talked about how just $10 a week would be a big help to students… to get them through. I have to drive everywhere and it’s quite costly. There’s not a lot of support for us,” Allahyari says.
She says in between her placement, part-time job and university study there’s no time to do anything else. “I’ve tried to focus on doing fun things, but I don’t have time for any sort of social activities”.
Wilton says “I can’t participate in my community the way I normally would, and that’s really hard. I’m nowhere near as social as I used to be”.
Although juggling work and study commitments is difficult, Wilton and Allahyari agree that it is worthwhile.
“In my placement and at university I’ve learnt a lot, and I’m glad that I’m doing it,” Wilton says.
“In the end, it will definitely be worth it,” she says.
Allahyari says, “placement is the hardest part, but I see the positive side as well.”
“I feel more confident in my experience. And it’s rewarding to support the community and to help people who are struggling with things like homelessness,”Allahyari says.
“I’m really excited to graduate. I can’t wait for the day I finish my degree and find a job.”