A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Degrees of hardship: Swanky cafes, sandstone and students on the breadline

The recent Universities Accord review into higher education identified the cost of living and a lack of a “sense of belonging” as partly to blame for record low completion rates. With many students struggling, student groups question the commercial and educational priorities of institutions. James Costa reports.

Degrees of hardship: Swanky cafes, sandstone and students on the breadline

Students queue for food relief at the University of Melbourne. The recent O'Kane review into higher education in Australia recognised that ”cost of living pressures are a major concern for many students". While it found that universities were helping students to cope, student groups say not enough is being done to respond to food insecurity in the student population. Photo: James Costa

Story by James Costa

Not 100 metres away from Cosmos, a swish Italian diner offering $25 truffle-paste “funghi” pizzas and $18 espresso martinis, a long queue forms outside the University of Melbourne student union shopfront.

They’re students, and they’re here four mornings every week when the Union Mart – the student union run and funded food relief program – opens its doors at 10am.

The queue always hits its quota of 125 students – the maximum the program can serve on any day. One morning a couple of weeks back, it reached the maximum by 10.05am, says Joshua Stagg, co-welfare officer of the union.

Welfare officers and volunteers at the University of Melbourne Student Union unload groceries for the food relief program. Photo: James Costa

Welfare officers and volunteers at the University of Melbourne Student Union unload groceries for the food relief program. Photo: James Costa


At Australia’s wealthiest university, holding over $11 billion in assets in 2022, according to its financial documents, the disconnect between the swanky commercial food retailers popping up in the Parkville campus’ new student precinct, and the squeezed realities of student life in the grip of a cost of living crisis, is stark.

Stagg accuses university administrators of having “dragged their feet” on more affordable options, such as opening a subsidised canteen with cheap food and drinks, because “it would negatively impact the retailers we have on campus.

“You have [the university] trying to bring students back on campus after COVID, but they’re actively forcing students away from campus,” he says.

According to its 2021-22 financial records, the university made between $14.5 million and $16.1 million from “rent and use of facilities”.

Questioned about the union’s claims, a university spokesperson said that “following the opening of a variety of new spaces and food outlets on our Parkville campus throughout 2023-24, the university is planning to further increase the number and range of affordable food options on campus”.

But these priorities speak “to the corporate interest of universities”, says National Union of Students President Ngarie Bogemann. “They are more interested in having food vendors and places that can pay to rent these spaces, rather than making sure the food that is supplied to students is genuinely affordable”.

The recent landmark Universities Accord report on the state of tertiary education across Australia, commissioned by the Federal Government and led by Professor Mary O’Kane, found that factors such as the cost of living, socio-economic background and a lack of a “sense of belonging” on campus were to blame for the lowest bachelor degree completion rates across Australia since 2014.

The report acknowledges that ”cost of living pressures are a major concern for many students”. It argues that universities are helping students to cope, but this observation is disputed by student groups. “The problem we’re seeing with things like food relief and food insecurity across the board is that universities aren’t stepping up to fill that role because they don’t see that as their role,” said Bogemann.

Stagg says that at the University of Melbourne, the student union wants to ramp up the Union Mart program and offer more food, essential household supplies and other discounted relief to more than 500 students a week. The union had the capacity to expand its delivery of relief, but has lacked the budget to finance it.

“If [the university] genuinely cared about feeding students, [it] would provide us with more resources.”

Stagg says the Union Mart was allocated $40,000 out of the $70,000 available to welfare programs administered by the student union. This is money that students pay with their student services and amenities fees, which the administration collects and then allocates a portion to the student union to spend according to it’s priorities. That $40,000 equates to about $3 a day for the 500 students currently being served in any week.

In a recent survey conducted by the union with more than 1600 responses, to be released next semester, over 83 per cent of students said that budget pressures meant they routinely removed items from their grocery cart, like fresh produce or proteins, while 55 per cent of students said they also skipped meals due to rising costs.

Bogemann says that food insecurity among students at the University of Melbourne followed a trend across the country, where “students are finding it more and more difficult to go to the grocery store and not just shop for the week, but particularly to buy fresh food, healthy, nutritious food.

“What I have seen across the country is these food relief programs are predominantly being run by student unions… [which] are chronically underfunded,” Bogemann says.

“The universities, [which] make billion-dollar surpluses year after year, they should probably step up with some of that money and work with student representatives, unions and students more generally to provide these services that appropriately service the student population,” she said.

Melbourne University did not respond directly to questions about how much funding it provided to food relief programs, but said that it “offers food relief programs including initiatives such as SecondBite frozen meal collection in three locations, the Fresh Food Project, the UMSU Union Mart and free breakfasts and brunches”.

With over 50,000 students, Stagg says “you cannot just run free frozen meals a couple times a week and fresh fruit on Tuesdays… so when [the university] gets questioned, [it] can point to the food relief and say, ‘look, we do this’”.

Stagg asks of the university, “what are the priorities?

“Looking good or feeding students?”

Students who are experiencing significant financial difficulties are encouraged to contact the student union and the university’s support services.

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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