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Worth $17 billion but living like paupers

Submitted by on October 8, 2010 – 2:11 pmNo Comment

Poverty among international students appears to be worsening, putting at risk an industry worth about $17 billion to Australia, writes Natassha Yunita.

International student rally for a Fair Education

It’s raining and cold. Sirens wail loudly. Police motorbikes and cars line the street, securing the scene. Brightly coloured flags obscure the skyline, a symbol of support for the rebellion.

Pedestrians are caught in the uprising. They observe hundreds of young people dressed in blue shirts printed: “Fair Education, let’s fight for it”, walking with purpose to the city. Their faces, obscured by the darkness and the rain, are faces of youth. Asians, Caucasians, Latinos — many races, creeds and religions, all united for one common cause.

I hear their loudspeaker: “Shame Labor shame! Concession cards now.” Banners fly violently in the wind but their words are clear: “Fight student poverty,” “Fair education”.

Rain and wind grow stronger. It’s a depressing scene. But the marchers are undeterred. They will not back down. Their voices sound louder. The National Union of Students (NUS) president, Carla Drakeford shouts, “Again and again we hear stories about students dropping out of university because they can’t afford to support themselves. Again and again we hear stories about students missing classes in order to work excessive hours to cover basic living expenses.”

I follow the protest. They represent me, my struggle. I know exactly how it feels to live in a country where the living cost is eightfold higher than at home. Every morning when I wake up, money is the first thought that comes into my head.

I arrived in Sydney in 2009. The living cost terrified me. “$3.50 for a bottled drink! I can get two meals in Indonesia”, “$5 for train ticket to university! I can go by taxi with the same amount of money in Jakarta”, my heart screamed.

To compensate my expenses, I work as a waitress. I work on night shift, very late. When I arrive home, it’s already the next day.

I am not poor based on my country’s standards, but I am not rich either. Here, I live with less than $1000 a month to pay all my living expenses, from accommodation to transportation, from food to books. It is way below 2010 Henderson poverty lines of $401.48 per week.

Student poverty does exist.

Many people think if we can study overseas, it means we are rich. It is not always true. Many international students sell assets and take out huge bank loans to buy a better future in Australia: a future that is covered by a dark cloud in front of us.

At the rally, I meet Lisa, a postgraduate student of accounting at University of Technology, Sydney. In China, she is a certified professional, but here, she is forced to work as a part-time cleaner. “This is the only job I can get, I applied to countless office job vacancies and none of them contacted me,” she says.

After the rally, she invites me to her apartment near the city so we can lunch together. She opens her apartment door. “I’m sorry for the mess,” she says politely.

It is a mess.

In front of me is the kitchen full of instant noodle packages, complete with empty bowls in the sink. In the living room, books and papers are everywhere. I look through the corridor on my left;, there are three doors, one is open, a bathroom. A two-bedroom apartment, I conclude.

Whilst she is busy cleaning up the sofa to allow me to sit, my eyes cannot stop staring at the standing plywood case beside the television. I can see fabric peeping out. I ask spontaneously, “what is this case for?” She replies, “That’s my friend’s wardrobe, she sleeps in the living room, on this sofa bench.”

I can’t stop myself asking another question, “How many friends do you live with?” She answers quickly, “nine”. “Four in each room and one in here.” I am shocked. Speechless. Meanwhile, I am grateful to have my own room.

International students face daily pressures because of student poverty. I have read and heard many reports about poor academic results and lack of friends as the result of excessive working hours or exploitation by employers through illegal practices such as under-payment and withholding wages.

Kevin, 24, an IT student from Macquarie University, told me he was recently fired from his part-time job. He was forced to take a loan from his relative. “It’s humiliating to be in that position. I don’t know what else I should have done. I was broke to my last 30 bucks.”

How can we survive? With hope, a hope that someday after we graduate, we will get a dream job to redeem all we have been through. We plunge ourselves into the land of strangers because overseas education has become the key to a better life in our home countries. “I push myself to study in Australia because I think this is a great investment, an investment for a lifetime,” says Kevin.

Education is the third largest export in Australia, after coal and iron; ahead of tourism in terms of its economic impact. It’s a business the country cannot afford to lose. Every year 632,000 international students contribute $17 billion to the national economy, and both numbers continue to grow.

Australia has to choose, to continue treating us as outsiders, expecting us to live on the fringes, pay up on time — be seen but not heard. Or Australia can change: improve relationships by considering international students as part of society, with a full set of rights.

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