The cost of an education Monday, Dec 11 2006 

Okay, I’m going to talk a bit about my family in this entry, even though I (still) have an unfinished draft entry introducing them sitting here waiting for me to get around to completing and publishing it*.

My wife (who shall be known as The Better Half) is a student who is about to enter the final year of her undergrad degree. She is studying at TLU – hardly surprising, since it’s the only game in town. Today, she started doing some work for the department she is studying with. Her job involves calling school-leavers who have applied to do one of their courses to advise them. Working from a script, she gives them some basic information (including ensuring that they do not interpret the call as a sign that they are going to receive an offer from TLU), checks whether they have any questions, and then responds to their questions or arranges contact from an appropriate staff member of the university.

I just picked TBH up from doing the after-dinner calls and she has found it rewarding yet demoralising. The kids (her word – I should mention that my wife has returned to study after having four children, the oldest being born 22 years ago) she has been speaking to are sweet, naive, and hopeful. However, what’s getting her (and, consequently, me) down is that even if they receive an offer, half of them won’t be coming to TLU next year.

Now, let me start by saying that in the grand scheme of things, I know that social welfare in Australia is better than many places in the world and that I am thankful to be raising my family in this country. At the same time, I feel there are problems with the way we look after our young people, and particularly our students, that make education less accessible than it should be.

The way our social security system (administered by Centrelink, a government agency) works, people under 25 may be eligible to receive a payment called Youth Allowance, subject to rules about other income and provided they are either seeking full-time work or undertaking full-time study.

Among young people, Centrelink distinguishes between those who are dependent (i.e., those receiving support from their families) and independent. The Youth Allowance payment rate for independents is higher. So far, everything is fine.

The problem comes through the way that independence is defined. There are several ways in which a person can be declared independent. These include being married, having children, or being unable to live at home. It is also possible to be declared independent through earning sufficient income or working sufficient hours over a period of at least 18 months – in other words, by demonstrating that you are working to support yourself.

Unfortunately, these rules do not take into account the situation of students who live away from home for most of the year but are still dependent on their parents. At TLU, most of our school-leaving students live on-campus while they study. A small proportion are locals, but most come from surrounding areas, or may come from major cities (which usually means that they did not gain a place at one of their local universities).

This means that they have considerable costs for accommodation and food compared to students who are living at home. But the rules mean that if they enter university directly after leaving school, they will be considered dependent and will receive less support than most people who have to pay for their own lodgings.

So what happens in reality? For some families, the cost of sending a child away to university is out of reach. The child can’t begin studying if they will be treated as a dependent. So, students are forced to put study on hold and work in an unskilled job for two years to “earn” their independence. Once they reach that point, they can apply to study again.

It’s a hinky system, and it affects TLU and similar universities, as well as the communities we serve, to a greater extent than those in the big cities studying at the major institutions. City kids who get into a city university can live at home. On the other hand, rural kids generally have to leave home to study, and city kids who receive places at rural universities also have to travel. Those rural kids who gain a place at a city university may be in the worst situation, as the accommodation charges at city universities are normally higher. Each of these groups is disadvantaged by a system that defines independence based on history (by the way, the timeframe was once 12 months but has grown longer, assing an extra year to the interval between high school and uni).

So, TBH is aggravated that many of the applicants she has been speaking to will be forced to defer their studies. We can add to that a personal factor – we have a daughter (to be named later) who will be finishing high school next year. She may end up at TLU, but we want to encourage her to find the programme that best suits her, even if that is interstate. If she does that, we’re going to have to find some cash to help out, or she risks being left in the same situation.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the most important thing that determines whether someone studies at university was their academic potential? I know that many of these kids will make it in the end, but they waste two years of their life earning a low wage when they could be getting on with their degree, and in that time some of them may end up moving away from a plan that involves further study. And the sooner they graduate, the sooner they start earning graduate-level salaries and paying graduate-level taxes to offset any extra assistance they received. It seems to me that the best thing a society can do is to invest in the education of its population to maximise their potential. But maybe I’m just wacky.

* You want to know the reason for the delay? I am hopeless at coming up with pseudonyms. As will become clear, I have a reasonably large and complex family structure, and I just can’t finish off the list of names-that-are-not-names. Seriously, that’s the weak excuse I have for not talking about my family. It’s not that I don’t love them, that my life doesn’t revolve around them, and that I don’t think of them as I go through every day. I just don’t know what to call them.


Choosing what’s important Wednesday, Nov 29 2006 

Tomorrow morning we have a committee meeting, at which a document I wrote is scheduled for discussion and, hopefully, approval. At the same time, a nationwide rally about the state of Australian industrial relations is going to take place. Our kids’ school schedules will also be affected by the rally, as many teachers will attend. So, I’m going to need to juggle three priorities and try to do what’s best for my family, myself and my principles. I think I have a plan – I should be able to attend the rally and make appropriate arrangements for the kids to be looked after. I’ll get to the work meeting when I can, and if anyone has a problem with my document I’ll straighten it out later. Of course, the fact that we didn’t get confirmation of the work meeting until an hour ago hasn’t helped with planning.