Studying for a First Degree as an Adult in AustraliaJan Thomas | Vice Chancellor and President, University of Southern Queensland
Universities Australia (UA) — formerly the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, made up of all the presidents of Australia’s 39 universities — has developed a report every five or so years since the 1970s on the financial circumstances of university students. Traditionally, the report has sought to describe the financial circumstances of the ‘average’ student in Australian higher education. However, in the most recent report on the outcomes of a survey of students conducted in 2012, UA has thrown in the towel and finally admitted it can no longer “describe what an ‘average’ student might be.”
To its credit, the report goes further and identifies as a major problem the fact that too many university and government processes are structured on the assumption university intake is essentially homogeneous, involving middle-class school graduates studying on campus full time, acknowledging at last that failing to recognise and respond to diversity in a diverse system creates inequities and inefficiencies.
In fact, official statistics have clearly reflected that there has been a significant level of diversity in the student body for a long time. Today, the proportion of students studying part time is almost one-third, those in external or multi-modal study is approaching one-quarter and those from low socio-economic backgrounds is fast approaching a fifth.
A particularly difficult message for policy makers to accept is the significance of students commencing study for their first degree as adults. More than 20 percent of Australia’s 235,000 domestic students commencing a bachelor’s degree in 2012 were aged 25 and above. Including students over the age of 21 raises that percentage to well over a third of students. Add to this the fact that almost 55 percent of the 16,500 students undertaking enabling programs in Australia each year as a pathway to higher study are 21 years of age and older, and you get a sense of just how significant adult enrollments are in undergraduate education in Australia.
It is difficult to categorize these group of students, except to say they are typically over-represented by people from disadvantaged backgrounds or who have otherwise missed educational opportunities when they were young, even if they may not appear disadvantaged at the time they present for enrollment. The group is also over-represented for people who are studying with concomitant family and/or work responsibilities, and for people who are self-supporting with no one else to fall back on.
A group well known to the University of Southern Queensland — where traditional students make up less than 10 percent of our undergraduate commencer cohort — are those studying for a first degree part time and online as employed adults. In the recent UA survey, almost 85 percent of part-time undergraduate students reported having been in paid employment over the previous 12 months, with two-thirds of these employed part-time students working more than 30 hours a week while studying.
An important characteristic of these students is they typically study between six and eight years to gain a three-year degree qualification. Managing study over such a long timeframe, and around work and family commitments, puts an enormous strain on individuals and raises a huge risk of attrition as life hurdles inevitably arise and need to be negotiated. Sheer study exhaustion from the extended grind of study and work is a real issue for these students. There is also the under-appreciated cost of overworked students failing to reach their full academic potential — forfeiting good marks as a result of study compromised by other commitments, or, indeed, students whose study is negatively impacting their employment or family.
On the positive side, part-time students who work full time show higher levels of confidence about their financial situation than do full-time students. However, students earning significant salaries are unable to take advantage of Australia’s generous no-interest, income-contingent student loan scheme, being required to pay for their study as they go. After all, Australian undergraduate students automatically qualify for an interest-free government loan to pay tuition fees, which they only need to start repaying once they earn a salary that exceeds a set threshold. If their salary is already exceeding that threshold, the benefit of being able to defer their tuition fee payments cannot be realised.
In-house experience indicates it is not uncommon for adult students to take time out from study to allow for either a catch-up in life or a catch-up in savings as a basis for recommencing study on a sounder footing.
The real concern is these students are currently invisible to the system. As long as policy makers concentrate on traditional students rather than the growing diversity that actually exists, the effectiveness of the sector will never be maximised.
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Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (2013). Statistical publications: 2012 Student Full Year: http://www.innovation.gov.au/highereducation/HigherEducationStatistics/StatisticsPublications/Pages/Students12FullYear.aspx
Bexley, E., Daroesman, S., Arkoudis, S. & James, R. (2013). University student finances in 2012: A study of the financial circumstances of domestic and international students in Australia’s universities, Universities Australia / Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne: http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/research/equity/docs/StudentFinances2012.pdf
Author Perspective: Administrator