Surviving Student Poverty

A new report has shown that two-thirds of Australian university students are living below the poverty line. One in five students reported occasionally going without food, half said they relied on their families for financial support and two-thirds of undergraduates reported being worried about their financial situation. Government cuts to tertiary education have been in the news a lot lately. But then, they have been in the news, every so often, since governments started funding tertiary education, way back when…

Student Cuts Rally Brisbane 23 April 2013 AAP Image/Dan Peled

Student Cuts Rally Brisbane 23 April 2013
AAP Image/Dan Peled

Memories of being a poor student and going on demonstrations against student cuts in the 1980s came flooding back and I found myself wondering what I would tell myself, if I could go back in time. How would I advise myself to cope with the poverty? Would the advice I would give my 1980s self be of any use to students in 2013? Here goes.

I’d tell myself to drink less beer and eat more food. Students now occasionally skip meals because they are poor. We skipped meals because we were poor – so poor we had to choose between food and beer. Beer won. If I had partied less I could have spent less time hung over and more time studying.

I’d tell myself to keep warm, wear thermals, take the bus in wet weather. English winters are brutal. In Oxford, students cycle everywhere, no matter the weather. I didn’t have much in the way of sensible clothes, and thermals were for old ladies. I spent every winter in a blur of flu and colds. Not helped, I’m sure, by poor diet and repeated hangovers.

I’d tell myself to join a yoga group. I was fit from all the dancing and cycling, but I’m sure the stresses of student life, and hours hunched over books, would revisit my bones less now if I had discovered yoga sooner.

I’d tell myself not to judge myself against others – to be more proud of myself. I often felt like an outsider at Oxford. So many students were from another world – rich, privately educated, financially supported by their parents. I didn’t realise I had just as much to feel proud of, to feel confident about. I didn’t realise that self-confidence and walking-tall could make you healthier and happier, even if you have to fake it at first.

Those are the morsels of advice I’d dispense to myself at 18. Would I have listened? I doubt it. But if I had, what would the result have been? I would have enjoyed university a bit more. I would certainly remember more of the fun if I had drunk less. I would have spent less time sick. But I would still have got the same degree, the same grade. If only I could have known at the start that I would do as well as the rich kids, the privileged hooray Henrys and the super-swots. All the law students in my little group got a 2:1, regardless of our different financial situations, levels of partying or physical resilience. I just wish I had enjoyed the journey more.

Student Rally Broad Street, Oxford c.1987 Image: Kitty Magee

Student Rally Broad Street, Oxford c.1987
Image: Kitty Magee

Not much has changed. We too marched against government cuts. That’s my friend Sue in Broad Street. We were marching against the University’s plans to give Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree. Thatcher’s Britain was so hard on the poor that at least it gave those of us who struggled to survive (on rice, potatoes and cheap beer) a sense of unity, something to fight for.

Perhaps what was different was that I accepted being poor. The ‘poor student’ was a role that was probably easier to play at an ancient university where it had honorable connections with bohemian poets, the Pre-Raphaelites, and others who had gone from poor student to great artist, writer or leader. It was poverty with a promise. Today there would be more demands on my pitiful income (which, by the way, came from a good vacation job). Then, we didn’t have to fork out for mobile phones, computers and ipads. I only needed 20 pence a week to phone my mum from the payphone. We needed A4 paper and a biro. Lots of biros. And beer. We didn’t watch telly, and advertising had not reached the pitch it has today, telling us about all the things we should have. Life was more about experience than possessions.

So, how do students today cope with being poor? They tell themselves it is only for a short while. They remind themselves that their situation is a time-honoured one – a right of passage. They eat healthy food. They have fun that they can remember because they only drink in moderation. They read blogs that give them tools to be happier and more confident. They listen when someone tells them to be proud of what they are achieving, and not to measure themselves against others. They practice yoga.

For the report on University student finances in 2012, commissioned by Universities Australia, see

For an ABC article, summarising the report findings, see

For earlier news on government cuts to tertiary education:


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