opinion: the student experience is more fragile than what is popularly perceived

The student experience is bursting at the seams with responsibility: university classes, study, work, clubs, societies, volunteering… more. It’s the life that was sold to teens straight out of high school in brochures plastered with smiling faces, and it may be their downfall according to a recent student study*.

When entering the terms ‘university students’ into a search engine, the image results tend to portray clusters of young people: books, bags or even globes in hand, faces aglow with zeal. An examination via survey of a small, convenience sample of students reveals that this perception is paper-thin.

Beneath the mid-shots and the buzz-words, exist a cohort of young people grinding to get through their dailies. A majority of survey respondents identified that they have very little spare time in their schedules. A large portion of those who identified this way also expressed that they feel too exhausted and overwhelmed to make effective use of this precious time.

This may seem typical to the average adult. Unfortunately for university students, when our lives lack ‘wiggle room’ we are unable to form critical redundancies which would otherwise be key in these formative years. Consequently, students are unprepared and unsupported against an unexpected shock to their life. 

*(Griffith University n.d.), **(University of Wollongong n.d.), ***(Healy & Pekarek 2017), ****(Reynolds et al. 2017).

Approximately eighty-four per cent of respondents said their overall wellbeing would improve if they had more opportunities to work on it. Worryingly, the same respondents specified that they are currently not able to to form adequate mental health redundancy. The purpose of this redundancy would be to handle significant and unpredicted emotional or mental downturn without compromising or falling behind on pre-existing obligations.

But, if students were afforded more time to do this, what form would these redundancies take? What does the act of making these redundancies look like? 

In short, multiple respondents stated that they would use the time to stress less. Some elaborated that they would focus on rest and mental recovery, alluding to the emergent notion of self-care. When a student can actively form a reservoir of strong mental health as a redundancy to fall back on, they are less likely to experience burnout when faced with sudden trauma (Bressi & Vaden 2017).

Another identified redundancy that is significantly deficient in the student experience is time itself. Students may encounter a shock that does not only require mental space but also physical time to deal with. Responses indicate that many students are uncertain they have the time to handle the situation without serious compromise in other aspects of their life.

For example, one student recently had their life uprooted by an interstate move made on short notice. They say they are now struggling to catch up with university work because they simply do not have the time amongst all the other tasks they must also complete.

A different student highlighted that even though the university has academic consideration policies, and that workplaces have options for leave of absence, these processes also require a time dedication that some may not have. These alternatives also come at the expense of days or weeks worth of productivity and income lost that will be difficult to recover.

The final element in this honest portrait of the true university experience is financial redundancy. Despite common perceptions of the impoverished university student being widely accepted fact, a large portion of survey respondents indicated that they have adequate financial redundancy whether by savings or by income stability. A surprising fifty-seven per cent of respondents have not even had to dip into their monetary back-ups since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of these positive figures, many respondents felt further steps could be taken to ensure more students have secure financial redundancies in place. A very popular idea was a university-run class to improve personal financial literacy with a focus on saving and investing. Such a class may potentially reinforce a student’s ability to remain financially afloat and independent when hit with an unplanned shock, for example not getting their rental bond back.

However, a couple of respondents highlighted that healthy personal finances should remain just that—personal. They believe that university already offers adequate financial support to its students, and that anything more is the responsibility of the student.

Though non-representative, the study on redundancy in the student lifestyle reveals key insights for students, for universities and for other external stakeholders. University students will find value in a re-examination of their weekly schedule to implement redundancy-building behaviours. Simply adding more free time to their schedule or implementing self-care activities is a worthy investment in an unexpected future.

For universities and other external stakeholders, flexibility will always be key when interacting with students. Ruling with an iron-fist when scheduling and assigning responsibilities is a one-size-fits-all path of destruction for any student. It is important to avoid being fooled by preconceptions about the joviality of the student lifestyle and instead engage with empathy and understanding.

*This opinion article is based on a student study, conducted by myself, which examined a small sample of students from my BCM212 class, for which the article is a set assessment. DO NOT cite this source as fact; it is simply an experiment in research and writing skills.

an examination of redundancy in the student experience

The world has descended into crisis; pandemic has a choke-hold on the lives of billions. Leaders must decide the fate of nations—how to save a dying economy, a dying population, and a dying way of life.

As Australia shuts down, a generation of university students must begin to tread unknown waters. The shift to online classes is a minor inconvenience compared to the imminence of unemployment. Whilst rent and other bills remain the same, income for young people is stifled.

As a university student, one of my biggest worries is money. How much money will I earn this week? How much money will I spend this week? Where can I save? And why did I just blow my whole pay cheque on a shopping-spree?

Now, with no income, job prospects or eligibility for welfare payments in the face of this crisis, my worries have trebled; and I don’t have to look far to see these concerns echoed by my peers.

I see my reality reflected in the work of Williams and Oumlil (2015). They note that vulnerable groups such as students are more likely to be financially excluded from mainstream financial service provision. This lack of resource access is compounded by irregular income; consequently increasing a university student’s vulnerability to external financial shocks and uncertainty, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am interested in learning about other university student’s spending practices and how they have changed since the switch to remote learning and social isolation. Do these students have redundancy plans in place? What happens to those who do not?

The question I propose is twofold: how do university students spend and save? Are these habits adequate to survive a global crisis, such as the COVID19 pandemic?

An informal, exploratory poll I designed for Twitter yielded the following results:


Though not conclusive, the results of the poll demonstrate that students may be very concerned about their money amidst the current crisis. Yes, a large 38% of respondents are ‘somewhat confident’ about staying afloat financially over the coming months, but a majority 56% lack that confidence to variable degrees.

That only 5.6% of respondents are confident about their money? It does not bode well; hence the need for deeper research to understand why this may be and how this vital aspect of the student experience can be enhanced.

Further Research

A review of existing literature regarding the finances of young people highlights that most studies are older and likely obsolete. Given the dynamic nature of the economy, one could assume that modern student finances have evolved since the early 2000s when research on this topic boomed.

Roberts and Jones (2001) early work suggests that consumer culture and consumption are an epidemic to young people; they link our depression, anxiety and low self esteem with compulsive buying. This source may be out-of-date, but it does start us out on an interesting path to uncovering more about student finances.

A more recent 2017 study by Sundarasen and Rahman concurs with the idea that young adults are drowned by the temptations of a consumer culture induced lifestyle. They identify students as being saddled with debts and unsettled credit cards. This study goes further to suggest that for students, money management/literacy can bring about financial freedom. This study inspires my inquiry into how students save and invest their money, as opposed to only how students spend their money.

Bramforth and Guersen (2017) look into the notion of student savings in their small Melbourne study of university students. They identify three distinct approaches to student money management: conservative, creative and entrepreneurial. An examination of what these money management strategies look like in the UOW cohort may be an interesting pathway in understanding how student finances will be impacted under the pandemic crisis.

Continually, the economic, social and psychological factors affecting undergraduates’ money management behaviours, as identified by Bamforth, Jebarajakirthy and Geursen (2017), will provide greater depth to understandings about student money management both in normal times and during the pandemic crisis; particularly compared to the traditional and two-dimensional focus on undergraduate financial literacy commonly seen in academic works in this field.

In my own research, I will tie these insights together in a comparison of university student money management and redundancy planning duringa crisis. I hope to highlight the very real struggles faced by students in their university experience, and the consequences of this on our lives and livelihoods.

(edited 25/04/20)


References

Bamforth, J & Geursen, G 2017, “Categorising the money management behaviour of young consumers”, Young Consumers, Vol. 18 No. 3, pp. 205-222.

Bamforth, J, Jebarajakirthy, C & Geursen, G 2017, “Undergraduates’ responses to factors affecting their money management behaviour: some new insights from a qualitative study”, Young Consumers, Vol. 18 No. 3, pp. 290-311.

Roberts, J & Jones, E 2001, “Money Attitudes, Credit Card Use, and Compulsive Buying Among American College Students”, Journal of Consumer Affairs, Vol. 35, pp. 213 – 240.

Sundarasen, SD & Rahman MS 2017, “Attitude Towards Money: Mediation to Money Management”, Academy of Accounting and Financial Studies Journal, Vol. 21 No. 1, pp. 1-13.

Williams, A & Oumlil, A 2015, “College student financial capability”, International Journal of Bank Marketing, Vol. 33, pp. 637-653.