Student life not a walk in the park

Students passing. Photo by Georgia Manning.
Australian students juggle study, part-time work and other demands. Georgia Manning reports.

Madeleine Goldsmith, an energetic 21 year-old, has just finished a double Bachelor in Exercise and Sport Science and Business (Sport Management) at Deakin University in Melbourne. She says she wouldn’t have completed it without her friends by her side. “If I didn’t make the great friends I did, I probably wouldn’t have finished the course.”

In 2015 1.4 million Australians were enrolled in a higher education institution, with more than 70 per cent of students studying full-time. Australian universities are unlike their US counterparts. Students do not have frat parties or sororities. Rather, they hold events such as formal balls, themed parties and establish clubs. Madeleine made friends through joining her institution’s football and netball teams and attending these events. “It was a fun environment and it pushed me to stick to studying because we all had similar interests.”

In Australia, the number of hours a student is required to attend class is different for each course. Madeleine says she would sit in class for 10 hours of the week, a very short amount of time in her opinion. “The short classes wouldn’t motivate me to do my work, because we would cover so much I couldn’t take it all in.” However, graduate diploma student Eliza Hammond, 21, attended class for more than 35 hours a week. Her course in Visual Merchandising at RMIT University was condensed from two years to one and-a-half, often making her workload unbearable. “I wasn’t able to enjoy the course as much as I wanted to because it was so busy and stressful,” Eliza says.

Students are dealt the task of juggling learning with their own home life. Many hold part-time jobs to pay their bills and earn some extra cash or save for travel. Madeleine was working two part-time jobs at a cinema and a gym, playing social sport with two teams and socialising with friends regularly. She became so involved in her university’s social sport, she participated in Unigames competitions three consecutive years, travelling to the Gold Coast and Perth to participate.

“We drank every night, made new friends and made the most of the opportunity.” She says some universities took the games quite seriously. It was an expensive trip for her, though it was subsidised by her institution. She paid $800, which included flights, accommodation and game registration. “I had the best time at Unigames, it was probably one of the highlights of my time at Deakin,” says Madeleine.

Eliza found it difficult to fit her job into her busy course schedule. “I was always in class or on the train to my campus in the city, the long days took up a lot of my time,” she says. Both Madeleine and Eliza were still living at home when studying, maintaining their financial stability through provided meals and basic living essentials. They also were granted Commonwealth support, delaying the payment for their course. However, international students must pay for their courses without government support or living with their parents.

The National Union for Students (NUS) is the representative body for all Australian undergraduate university students. It says that international students need to work longer hours because they have higher costs than local students. “The Australian government only allows international students work no more than 40 hours each fortnight,” says NUS.

The quality of learning varies from campus to campus. Madeleine says most teachers were knowledgeable, her sport science teachers in particular. However, some lecturers she found difficult to understand, so she would put pressure on herself to learn material leading up to the exam. “I would sometimes learn a whole semester in a week prior to my exam,” she says.

Lauren Carmichael, 49, had a very different university experience back in the late 80s. She studied for a Diploma of Health Science. Lauren was one of the first registered nursing students to study at a tertiary campus, unlike the traditional hospital-trained nurse. Her qualification is now regarded as equivalent to a bachelor degree because of the amount of learning involved. This transition made it hard for Lauren and her nursing student friends as the existing workforce were threatened by this new style of nurse education. They didn’t feel welcomed during their placement, and it proved difficult for Lauren because of the opposition of nursing staff. “They said to me, ‘How can you learn to be a nurse out of a textbook?’.”

Unlike today, when students can access journals and the information they need with one click, Lauren had to browse through journals in hard copy. “We had to go to the library and use a sort of catalogue machine that would tell you where the article you needed was in the library.” Modern times allow highly accessible material to students, making their research and learning a smoother and easier learning experience.

Because Lauren was studying a course that was originally hospital based and nurses would get paid for their time, her tertiary based course was free of charge. She had to worry only about union fees. Now, as students have to pay for their course, political issues emerged about course pricing and regulation of universities.

In recent years politicians have discussed the possibility of deregulating universities. This means universities would have the freedom to charge unrestricted student fees, which could ultimately deter students from tertiary study. The National Union for Students says this would create “uncertainty around funding, fees, and student income support mean an Americanisation of our education system and a generation of young people ruling out tertiary education”.  They believe universities are always eager for money, estimating that the cost of a degree would soar.

Though Madeleine enjoyed her course overall, her only critique was “I think university should prepare you more for the real world.”

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