Students on our university and TAFE campuses are fighting to guarantee an educational experience that is equitable, accessible and safe for all. They are fighting back against university funding cuts and the imposition of trimesters that squeeze them for money while reducing the quality of their education. They are fighting the threat of $100,000 degrees, fed up with politicians who went to university for free repeatedly jacking up their fees. They are fighting back against the erosion of penalty rates, exorbitant rents and the skyrocketing cost of living, all of which forced them into difficult decisions about their study and their work.
A key cost-of-living pressure is the ever-increasing cost of public transport. We should talk about ways to modernise the arrangements dealing with concession fares. We must be fair, pragmatic and forward looking about the subsidies we provide for student travel. The difference between a concession rate and full-time travel really adds up fast. In my electorate of Summer Hill a one-way trip from Central costs $2.10 on an Opal concession and $4.20 full fare.
The difference is even starker for people travelling outside the central metropolitan area. For example, if you are travelling from Penrith on a concession Opal you will be charged $3.23 but $6.26 for a full fare. If you are travelling to university in Sydney from a regional centre, such as Woy Woy for example, you will be charged $4.15 if you are a full-time domestic student but $8.30 if you are an international student or part-time student. It is clear that transport is a huge imposition on students who are already under significant financial pressure, and that will be ever increased once fares go up across the network on 3 July.
Under the current system, Opal concession cards are offered only to domestic students who are enrolled full-time at university. While there are some minor exceptions within this model, in the overwhelming majority of cases the Government is leaving part-time and international students without access to discounted public transport pricing. This model is outdated and it is unfair. International students are a significant driver of economic activity, contributing an estimated $19.7 billion to our national economy. A City of Sydney report notes that research reveals first-generation international students—who are often perceived to be inherently wealthy because of their choice to study abroad—are more likely than other students to be culturally, academically and financially disadvantaged. The report notes that international students are more likely to be the targets of crime and to experience housing exploitation and food insecurity. Restrictions that cap their hours of work at 20 per week may force them into unregulated industries for little pay, with no workplace protections. They are far from home and often have very few social supports. Yet, despite all these pressures, international students are forced to pay full public transport fares.
For Australian students studying domestically the deal is not much better. According to research from Universities Australia, two-thirds of students live below the poverty line. Rental affordability is hitting students hard. Many students cannot access Austudy or financial support from family, and instead work long hours in low-paid jobs to get by. And still the Federal Government is determined to slash penalty rates—which many students desperately rely on—without a word of criticism from this Liberal State Government. Faced with these choices, students are increasingly opting for part-time study or to study courses online. Commonwealth Department of Education and Training data shows that roughly 25 per cent of all tertiary students are now studying part-time. The Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals that the main source of income for three out of five higher-income students is wage or salary. Still, rarely are part-time students earning a wage comparable to full-time workers, and yet again they are forced to pay full fares on public transport.
More and more students are choosing to study online as a way to balance work, family and study commitments, but they are not able to access transport concessions either. Recently I spoke to a father who had opted to take parental leave in order to retrain at home while looking after his children. He studied at night and during the day while the kids napped and managed a full-time study load. As most of this study was online, he was not eligible for those concessions either. This is forcing students to make really tough decisions between work and study. These arrangements are in place to assist students and they are in desperate need of modernisation. They are currently unfair and exclude many from accessing university and TAFE. We need a system of public transport concessions that reflects the pressures on students, and we need to address the injustice of a system that disadvantages international students, students studying part-time and students studying online. After students work hard to be enrolled at university and TAFE, it is the responsibility of government to ensure they can travel to and from campus affordably.