Universities Australia conference in Canberra hears student concerns

Today's students face unprecedented stress from living costs, time constraints and the need to juggle multiple roles, a higher education conference in Canberra has heard.

Representatives from two student associations spoke before Universities Australia's conference in Canberra on Wednesday about changing student expectations in 2017.

National Union of Students president Sophie Johnston and Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations president Peter Derbyshire covered a range of topics about the student experience, including cost of living pressures, welfare, digital learning and sexual assault on campus.

Ms Johnston told the crowd at the National Convention Centre ballroom that students needed to feel supported, especially as the industry changed.

"Students, when given the right platform to succeed, can influence industries, research and social change in ways we have not seen before," she said.

"The student experience is definitely changing. We're balancing part-time work with full-time study, and at the same time applying for internships, exchanges and scholarships necessary to get employment after graduation."


Mr Derbyshire said postgraduate students faced their own problems with time constraints while pursuing a PhD and a lack of funding for living expenses.

He said surveys showing postgraduate satisfaction needed to include more nuanced questions about supervisors, timing and support.

"PhD students are expected to do the same sized projects that used to take five years in three years, you're expected to do it on a stipend that is now below the poverty line," he said.

"They're not expecting to deal with a supervisor who tries to steal their IP or who bullies them or treats them as stupid."

Both stressed the need for universities to recognise the different circumstances students faced that could affect their study or the timeframe in which their degrees were completed.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded that 37.1 per cent of Australians aged between 25 and 34 had a bachelor degree or higher in 2016, down slightly from 37.3 per cent in 2015.

Ms Johnston said a greater emphasis on student welfare was required, including in the provision of mental health support services, as well as a better response to sexual assault on campus.

"It is never pretty to talk about sexual assault or about gendered violence and it's harder to talk about rape when it's happening in our own institutions," she said.

"We need effective response strategies and better reporting channels, ensure that victims have adequate support and there needs to be consent training."

A question and answer session followed their presentations, which gave audience members the opportunity to ask questions about topics such as regional student engagement and consultation on course construction. 

The convention wrapped up on Thursday, with satellite events running on Friday.