The Couch: Student poverty and support

STUDENT poverty is a growing concern. The City of Melbourne hopes to promote Melbourne as Australia’s leader in international education, yet many overseas students are struggling to meet their most basic needs. Jordan Thompson spoke to Peter Hichaaba of The Couch about financial pressures and the need for support.

Student spending

Photo: Stuartpilbrow via Flickr

Monetary pressures are as diverse as students’ own economic situations, but according to a report published by Universities Australia earlier this year, more than two thirds of local and international students at Australian universities are experiencing financial stress.

Meld spoke to Peter Hichaaba, co-ordinator of The Couch, about the cause and impact of economic pressures on students.

Located on Bourke St in the city, The Couch is a joint project between the Salvation Army and the Australian Federation of International Students (AFIS) which provides a space where international students can meet, eat and find support.

Founded in 2009, the establishment has gone from receiving five to ten visitors every evening, to sometimes 250 a night. That is quite a turnover, considering that The Couch only operates from 5.00 – 9.00 pm. The increase, Peter says, has never been considered a ‘success’.

“I think right from the beginning it has never been about the numbers. It has always been about the issues, it has always been about the difficulties that students face.”

The Couch's Hamovda Cafe is open 9-5pm everynight

The Couch is located at 69 Bourke Street and operates from 5.00 – 9.00pm, Monday to Thursday. Photo: Myriam Robin

The Couch caters for international students in whatever way it can, but among the social activities, forums and workshops Peter admits that it has, for some students, become a necessity rather than just a meeting place.

“You have some who are coming here just for the purpose of meeting friends, relaxing, having a coffee, and then you have some that are coming here because they need the food,” says Peter, who admits seeing this need become more urgent in the time he has worked at The Couch.

One of the reasons, says Peter, is because many students are finding that the cost of studying in Australia can go far beyond the most obvious expenses.

“A lot of students when they calculate things in their heads, they think that their ticket and school are the most expensive things, but it’s when they come and land then they realize that you have to pay the ticket to travel, you have to pay accommodation, you have to pay for food. All those things they come into reality,” Peter explained.


Surprisingly, pressure from having to socialise also factors into the montarey woes of overseas students. Photo: University of Nottingham via Flickr

Costs can be amplified by the rate of currency exchange, the need to travel to school and work, familial pressures, accommodation and much more. In addition to these, Peter also mentions another, perhaps somewhat surprising cause for spending – social pressure.

Students socialise constantly, and for some, maintaining a social life can be an expensive exercise. As Peter explains, this is because some students feel they must make the same effort as their peers when socialising, which can lead them to spend more than they can afford.

It is this constant need to prioritise funds which has some students struggling and making meals at The Couch a matter of necessity.

To address these problems Peter suggests that some of the seemingly ‘lose-lose situations’ for students need to be corrected. On the topic of public transport fees and accommodation he explained that students often face the battle between more expensive rent closer to work, or cheaper rent and higher transport fees.

“A lot of the students are now coming to live in the city where it is expensive, just to avoid transport. Then some of them are thinking ‘No, it’s much better for me to pay less rent and then travel to the city’ but then when you add it up on  a daily basis it’s more expensive.”

Without concession daily transport costs can add up Photo: Orin Zebest via Flickr

Without concession daily transport costs can add up to considerable amounts. Photo: Orin Zebest via Flickr

The lack of public transport concession for international students has been gaining prominence in the media and the community. Following the release of the Victorian Government’s International Education Strategy for Victoria 2013 – 2018,  Victoria will be trialing transport concessions over three years beginning in 2015. Peter agrees that among the fundamental issues for international students, obtaining travel concessions is a big one.

“If you are trying to advertise the City as one of the most friendly places for international students, then transport has to be one of those things.”

While circumstances do vary greatly among international students, the experiences of international students undergoing financial stress is a cause for concern. It is clear that Peter’s (and many other volunteers’) work at The Couch is becoming a testament to the pressures which students face and the need for support.

“Students come here for visa issues, they are coming here for food, they are coming in for job issues and quite a range of whatever student difficulties you can associate.”

If you are in need of support, advice or just want to find a community of those struggling with similar issues, The Couch is located at 69 Bourke St operates from 5.00 – 9.00pm, Monday to Thursday.

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