Students Continue to Struggle Under Centrelink Delays
For students across Australia, one of the greatest things about going to uni is suckling from the proverbial teat of the government. In a country that prides itself on its social services, students have always taken comfort in the fact that no matter their financial situation, they have access to tertiary education, and Uncle Malcolm or whoever else is in power will support them.
But lately, this has not been the case.
Centrelink has delayed the processing of its Austudy and Youth Allowance payments by up to four times the usual 21-day period. The backlog, which peaked in March at 90 000 claims, has been blamed on a strain on resources and job cuts. What this means is tens of thousands of students who have enrolled to study on the basis they will be financially assisted are struggling to make ends meet.
Stories of drastic action are rampant, with some students taking out loans, others selling their cars and some even dropping out of their studies altogether. Many who have stayed in school have had to decrease their enrolment to part time in order to work more hours, meaning that when their Centrelink applications finally get processed, they’ll be rejected on the basis that part-time students are ineligible for welfare.
In response to the dire situation, Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge claims to have increased his workforce fourfold, and hopes to clear the backlog within the next fortnight.
“There are now fewer than 29 000 claims on hand, which is below the level at the same time last year,” he said.
21-year-old Jasper Kelly, a visual arts student at the University of Sydney, is one of the 29 000. He applied for Youth Allowance on February 25 after moving to Sydney from Margaret River. More than two months later, he is still waiting for assistance.
“Had I known I would end up in this position in the most expensive city in Australia, I would have worked the first half of this year and started uni in second semester,” he said.
“What’s even more frustrating is that the Student Start-Up Scholarship is now a HECS loan , meaning I’m essentially just waiting on a loan I’ll have to pay back at the end of my study.”
In order to support himself, Jasper has been forced to borrow money from a friend, and is now more than $4000 in debt. Though he was given a financial disadvantage bursary from his university’s student centre when he approached it for food vouchers, this straight away went to an upfront school materials levy, textbooks and paying off some of his loan.
24-year-old Kayla Sutton moved from Melbourne to Sydney in February to commence a Bachelor of Fine Arts/Arts at the University of New South Wales. She saved $1000 to cover set up costs, and applied for Youth Allowance on February 23. She too is still waiting for assistance, and is down to her last $5.
“I’ve applied for a loan from the student organisation at UNSW, which should be processed soon, but they only give out loans of maximum $500,” Kayla said.
“The uni itself cannot give me a loan, because in order to do, I’d need to have been studying for one semester at least. I’m having to dumpster dive for food and borrow money from [my boyfriend]; I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have him to support me.”
Jasper says he doesn’t want to complain about a delay in getting free money, but balancing work and his studies is much harder than he originally anticipated.
“It wasn’t easy to find a job that would take me on part time around my university hours, particularly in the industries I’m trained in,” he said.
“I’m working weekends and nights, but I’m barely making enough to cover rent.”
Mr Tudge has said that students in crisis like Kayla and Jasper should contact the Department of Human Services immediately.
“We are prioritising claims from people … facing financial hardship and I encourage anyone in this situation to contact the department immediately for assistance,” he said.
But according to Jasper, getting onto someone from the department is in itself a feat.
“I’m constantly told when I go into a Centrelink office that there’s nothing they can do, I need to call up. When I call up, after being on hold for up to an hour, the information I’ve previously been given gets contradicted and I’m told I haven’t done enough to support my claim,” he said.
“Then I’ll talk to someone else, and they’ll say the staff have just overlooked the forms I’ve provided, and I have to wait some more for my claim to be properly processed. It’s just dead end after dead end.”
Lisa Newman, Deputy National President of the Community and Public Sector Union — the body that represents Centrelink employees — has described the delays in processing as “shocking”.
“We’re extremely dubious about the Minister’s declaration that this backlog will be fixed in the next fortnight,” she said.
Seeing as today marks nine days since Mr Tudge’s promise, students like Kayla and Jasper can only hope Ms Newman is wrong.
Cover by Kokkai Ng