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:


Feel Good About Studying Humanities

pen and book

The place of humanities in higher education was debated again last week in The Japan Times. I thought I’d summarise the main points and add a few of my own (having had the kind of broad education that the authors argue we need more of). In the United States top universities are shifting from a broad and liberal education to degrees directly tied to an occupation. “Elsewhere in the world,” according to Pope and Tang, “there is a growing emphasis on broader learning as an economic necessity”. This comes from demands from employers for “soft skills” like communication, critical thinking and working with diverse groups. It’s good to see that employers, at least, recognise that “the biggest innovations come from graduates who are well-rounded”.
 In Europe, they say, “where for centuries students have jumped straight into specialized fields and studied little else, recent changes have pushed back specialization, making more room for general education”. I guess that they don’t count the UK as part of Europe. My own experience at university in the 1980s was that British universities really valued the arts and humanities – teaching students to think rather than cram in vocationally oriented information. My own law degree administered a massive dose of philosophy – something for which I am enduringly grateful.

In Africa and the Middle East, say Pope and Tang, “experiments are moving away from a relentlessly narrow education tradition” and “China is breaking down the rigid disciplinary walls that have long characterized its higher education system”.

They ask, in the shadow of the Great Recession, what kind of education will best drive economic growth? They argue for a broad style of education – the kind that produces the “magic” that helped launch companies like Apple and Google – making the important point that (in a fast-changing world) we don’t know what kind of jobs will be out there when todays new students graduate. Humanities and Liberal Arts subjects produce graduates who can think creatively and critically, who can communicate and who can write. They are the graduates who will have the adaptability to meet whatever the future brings. Vocationally specific, knowledge-based courses could produce students whose skills are out of date before they even get their first job. Talking of jobs, Steve Jobs, the late cofounder of Apple, is often cited on his call for the marriage of liberal arts, humanities and technology the secret to Apple products “that make our hearts sing.”

The pyramid has always been powerful – as a compositional device in painting, as an architectural structure, and for theoretical frameworks. A broad first degree provides the most solid foundation on which to build – whatever direction you want to go in. Teach students to think, learn, communicate and write, and you give them tools for life and work in a changing world. If they go on to learn vocational skills, they’ll learn them quickly and thoughtfully, arriving in the workplace equipped to solve problems and make a difference. In an overpopulated world on an unsustainable path, we need to nurture innovative thinkers who can see the big picture. As Jonathan Becker (vice president for international affairs at Bard College in New York) says, “narrow boundaries of disciplines are not the answer to modern world problems.”

Having read the article, my mind wanders off on its own, remembering how few students I’ve met in the last 30 years who knew what career they wanted when they enrolled in university. I’m also recalling how many of my friends have had multiple career changes, myself included. Doing a law degree taught me that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Fortunately its philosophy content, and my earlier studies in English literature and French, gave me a good foundation for an adaptable career path that has ultimately proved rewarding.

Yet in the USA and Australia the humanities are taking some hard hits. Pope and Tang tell us that in the States literature, philosophy and other humanities have suffered from low enrollments and “American politicians are encouraging the trend of practicality in higher education. The governors of Florida and North Carolina, for example, have pushed to shift state funding away from liberal arts subjects to programs that lead more directly to jobs.” It looks like more short-term thinking by politicians to me. Perhaps they can show that narrow vocational courses get graduates into jobs faster after graduation, but they have no idea what happens to them later on (after all, that’s beyond the next election, in Never Never Land). How well do these graduates fare once they get the job? Not so well. According to Pope and Tang “a recent employer survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found 93 percent reported that capacities to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems were more important than an undergraduate major.” In Australia I keep hearing about the closure of University art departments and the axing of whole disciplines, like art history – a discipline that encompasses more critical thinking, history, science and philosophy than any other.

Of course we need skilled workers. As always, it’s a question of balance. Pope and Tang talk about our need for leaders, “curious, confident risk-takers”, and people “who’ve wrestled with subjects like history, politics and justice”. They quote Dutch academic Hans Adriaansens who says, “A narrow degree may misfire… but a broader degree gives graduates the tools to reinvent themselves”, concluding, “You can build a high mountain on a very broad base.” If he’d had a broader education he might have quoted Eleanor Roosevelt who said “The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.”

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Bad Grade Blues

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If you have been unhappy with your grades this semester, you could have the Bad Grade Blues. The cure for this is to spend some time over the semester break with a DCC coach.  Coaching and tuition with an Oxford University graduate won’t cost the earth but it will set you up for better grades next semester.

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Increasing your range of academic skills will not only improve your grades. It will also increase your self-confidence and your enjoyment of student life. Email DCC for more information –