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Country students carry heavy burden as costs rise

University students from rural areas are being pushed to the brink as they work full-time hours to support their studies and manage rising costs.


A general view in Orbost, Victoria, Thursday, May 25, 2023. (AAP Image/Adrian Black)

When Cameron Melton moved from his country home town to study at a Sydney university, he dreamt of an independent life in the big smoke.


But the 18-year-old has been overwhelmed by the costs of living in the harbour city, spending time each day scrawling budgets on scraps of paper and applying for several jobs to help cover accommodation, transport and food.


"Trying to balance all of that is so restrictive," Mr Melton told AAP.


"On a day-to-day basis, the next day is always ambiguous."


Mr Melton, who moved from Cowra in central western NSW to study at Macquarie University, said city-born students had noticeably different lifestyles.


"In most situations, they'll stay at home, they'll still have access to their support networks and, even if they do live independently, their family could be as little as an hour away.


"The disparity is so vast, it's shocking."


The cybersecurity student said a $5000 scholarship from the Audi Foundation and the Country Education Foundation eased some of that financial pressure in his first year away from home.


"I wouldn't have been able to do it without them," Mr Melton said.


The Country Education Foundation, a national not-for-profit organisation that helps regional students pursue higher education, said its research showed people from the country were uniquely affected by rising living costs.  


A survey of 466 of its nearly 700 scholarship recipients found 79 per cent had to relocate for study, making accommodation and travel their biggest expenses.


The foundation's head of impact, Nicole Wright, said many students used part of their funding to travel long distances home to reconnect with their communities.


"They're leaving home, they're leaving family, they're leaving friends and having to re-establish in a new place with people from very different walks of life to them," Ms Wright said.


"For them to use a little bit of that money to get home and just have a hit of good feels and comfort, then go back and keep going is really big."


The survey showed 15 per cent reported working more than 30 hours a week to support themselves, with very few receiving financial help from their families.


Country students were more likely to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds than their city peers, while others expressed worries about asking their families for money, Ms Wright said.


"They are so acutely aware of the financial burden that their education not only causes for them, but for their families, so they take on a lot of that,'' she said.


"They're so hell-bent on not being that burden."


A three-year longitudinal study by The Smith Family, which involved a survey of more than 1000 young people and in-depth interviews with smaller cohorts, found they were increasingly choosing work over study as expenses rose.


The work was often low-paid with precarious conditions and limited career progression as young people transitioned out of high school, the charity's report said.


Ms Wright said very few of the foundation's recipients were forced to drop out, bolstered by metropolitan universities' growing understanding of regional students' financial and social needs.


"But you need to have those different avenues for students to get them through," she said.


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