Oxbridging the Gap
Words by Samantha Bedford
Feeling the pressure of commencing or returning to study is a common experience for many tertiary students. With the jarring sound of the Centrelink on-hold string concerto ringing in our ears, we repeatedly refresh seek.com, waiting for an appropriately ‘unskilled’ job advertisement in the hope of supplementing our meagre fortnightly youth allowance payments and possibly being able to afford a textbook.
Financial independence often comes at a price to young academics, most of whom have greater aspirations than the demands of their current menial employment. While concessions are available to students, financial assistance is usually provided as a loan to be later repaid, or like youth allowance, is difficult to engage with and payments are often stopped without justification. As such, student welfare recipients often deal with the added burden of severe financial insecurity, and the resultant stress has further implications on academic performance. It is no secret that poverty is one of the main contributors to the high incidence of mental illness in young people
Many well-respected, prestigious, and high performing educational institutions require students to relinquish part-time employment as part of their ‘conditions of membership.’ To compensate, Cambridge offers its undergraduates holding UK or EU citizenship a generous bursary of up to £3,500 per annum if they are of a low-income background, defined as “a household income of below £42,620”.
Cambridge has stipulated that this is intended to allow students to devote themselves completely to their studies, promoting better learning outcomes and enhancing examination performance, which can compete on a global scale. This also allows for students to become more immersed within the university’s strong culture of extracurricular activities, from highly competitive sporting to creative pursuits, providing relief from academic commitments, and thus an overall more manageable work-life balance.
Meanwhile, Australian students are often forced into demoralising and precarious casualised work with below-award wages, little security, and often unsociable hours. The student demographic is highly exploitable, and most people (including parents) are aware of the type of worker’s rights abuses that occur in these environments — including wage theft, sexual assault, and workplace bullying.
While many excuse these conditions as temporary, the lower GPA that many achieve due to this added burden casts much doubt on the future employment of young workers, especially those from a low-income background who lack the safety net of nepotism. The assurance of social mobility through education become less achievable when one is unable to commit as much time as they would need in order to attain their goals. The currently inept financial support provided by the University of Adelaide and the federal government privileges students of the upper class, who are either supported by their parents or work for pocket money, rather than subsistence.
It wasn’t always like this — under the Whitlam government, university fees were scrapped in 1974, with the Labor government professing the belief “that a student’s merit, rather than a parent’s wealth, should decide who should benefit from the community’s vast financial commitment to tertiary education” two years prior. However, with sweeping revisions to the Student Assistance Act, the impoverishment of students is now broadly tolerated, and it seems that the common attitude toward education has shifted away from equity and academic rigour. Today we experience a more ‘means to an end’ model, wherein the hope conferred by the promised payoff of a future higher wage should be enough to get us through another day wondering where our next meal will come from, and ideally the next 3 years (at a minimum).
Institutions which have committed themselves to supporting undergrads throughout their enrolment thereby prioritise academic achievement and a well-rounded student experience, unencumbered by extraneous pressures. The University of Adelaide however, has a very different campus culture to Oxbridge, one hindered by increasing commercialisation, which emphasises purely vocational knowledge over all else. Having suffered through many uninspired courses which made me feel as though the skipped meals, chronic fatigue, and existential crises were all for nothing, my curiosity and drive to acquire knowledge for its own sake have been quashed, lowering my estimations of what I can achieve. It is no wonder that Cambridge, as well as Oxford, produce so many prolific and impactful academics, (and perform so well in the global rankings) when they have the best interest of students, and the community, in mind.