In February this year, I packed up as much of my life as I could fit in my car and moved to Melbourne, four hours away from my hometown of Bairnsdale, East Gippsland. Fresh out of high school, I wasn’t sure I was ready to leave home. But I wanted to pursue tertiary education, and I didn’t have much choice. Each year, this is the reality for hundreds of regional Victorian high school graduates. For many, like myself, commuting to Melbourne to attend classes simply isn’t a possibility.
Alysha Bodman graduated from high school in 2014. From Yarram, South Gippsland, Alysha knew if she wanted to go to uni, living at home wouldn’t be an option. This year, Alysha is studying public relations at RMIT, and living in a share house.
“Balancing working to pay rent, bills and food while studying at the same time is challenging,” Alysha says.
Alysha says moving out has negatively impacted upon her uni life. Her parents live three hours from Melbourne and she can’t rely on them for support.
Alysha’s story isn’t uncommon. Gen Pyne also graduated high school in 2014 and had to relocate for university, despite staying in her local region of Gippsland. Federation University’s Gippsland campus is two hours away from Gen’s hometown of Bairnsdale. She is choosing to complete her degree there because it’s her closest uni.
“The idea of moving at least four hours away put me off studying in Melbourne,” she says.
Living on campus has made Gen more independent and self-motivated, but supporting herself financially is impacting her grades. Gen can’t find a job in the Latrobe Valley where Fed Uni is situated so she travels four hours back to Bairnsdale each weekend just to work.
Alysha and Gen are actually among a minority, despite their stories being remarkably common among regional students. In 2014, only 22 per cent of East Gippsland’s high school graduates went on to study at university according to the Victorian Government’s On Track survey.
The low statistics raise questions about the accessibility of university to those from rural areas. Unfortunately, this isn’t just the case for East Gippsland, but much of rural Victoria. On Track also reveals university attendance is disturbingly lower for regional Victorians than for their city-raised peers. Only 65.5 per cent of non-metropolitan high school graduates pursue education beyond year 12, opposed to 81.7 per cent of high school graduates from metro areas.
Federal Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, says the biggest deterrent for those from rural Victoria to attend university is moving out of home.
“There are significant accommodation and relocation costs that come with attending university… that can be upwards of $15,000 a year,” Mr Chester says.
Mr Chester says there is more to be done by the federal government to improve access to university education for regional students.
“Geographical distance should not prevent students from pursuing their desired careers.”
The National Union of Students, the peak representative body for Australia’s undergraduate students, agrees both the government and universities should be doing more for rural students.
NUS’ Victorian State Education Officer’s Declan Murphy says student unions play a large role in helping young people from rural areas integrate into uni life with clubs, societies and social events. But he argues the universities themselves could provide further assistance to these students, by offering scholarships specifically to those from rural areas, or expanding the number of students accessing pre-established scholarships.
One system the Federal Government currently has in place to support rural students is Youth Allowance. But Murphy says Youth Allowance is not applied fairly, and strict eligibility criteria mean many regional Victorian students don’t qualify for payments.
Under the current criteria, if you apply for Youth Allowance, you must prove your independence by being over 22 years old. Alternatively, you must be employed full-time for at least 18 months during a two-year period, have a child, or have parents unable to exercise their responsibilities.
If you can’t prove your independence, eligibility for Youth Allowance is based solely on your parents’ or guardians’ income and assets, making it difficult for many regional students to get the financial support they need.
Mr Chester agrees more needs to be done in the area of relocation assistance for regional students. While Youth Allowance is generally an effective system, it is not one designed to assist with relocation.
“The current system is letting us down because it takes money away from mums and dads in the regions and gives it to landlords in the city,” Mr Chester says.
But Mr Chester is positive about the future of young regional Victorians and he says young people in his electorate are also positive about their future opportunities.
“As a government, we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to foster opportunities for young people, including ensuring there is equitable access to higher education.”