Gittins on Uni Students: Whatever

Ross Gittins has an article in the SMH on the relative wealth of university students. It is interesting reading. I was helped out by my folks for the final year an a half of my PhD in a direct way. My mum also used to send me cash every now and then during my candidature so I could buy some brocolli.

Two things that Gittins does not discuss that are important to talk about.

1) ‘Student’ is a structural subject position within the labour market. There are ‘student’ jobs. ‘Students’ get a discount on a lot of things from movies to public transport. The character of the labour of a ‘student’ is primarily based in the service industry and organised around affective labour. The economy (and hence capitalists) need students to carry out ‘student’ labour. I worked in a servo the four years of my undergraduate honours degree, only moving home for my final honours year to make sure I did well.

2) The nature of being a student has shifted from my parents’ generation to my generation. My mum got paid to go to teachers’ college and she was there fulltime (like 9 to 5 fulltime, not 20 hours a week ‘fulltime’). Given the option to go to uni for 2 years and get paid to do it compared to going to uni for up to 4 years and stuff around trying to balance study, work and the rest of life, I don’t know, but I think many students would take the two year option.

Why has this shift occurred? Two reasons.

Firstly, see point 1. Gittens does not mention this. Students don’t have much money sure, and ‘living like a student’ is probably a life enriching, if not humbling experience for many sons and daughters of privilege, but studying also ‘costs’ them at least two years of life and four years of bullshit labour that is required for the service-based economy to function.

Secondly, ‘fulltime’ students don’t show up on unemployment stats. Here is the ‘international standard’ definition of unemployment from this report:

[P]eople are unemployed if they did not work for at least one (paid) hour in the previous week, were actively seeking work and were able to accept a job in the next week if it were available.

Therefore, there is a governmental incentive to make unemployment figures look lower than the real employment problem in Australia, and most developed countries worldwide, under-employment.

My point is a simple one. Gittins sets up the problem for students in the economy as a lack of disposable and necessary income. This is wrong. The real problem is the structural position of students as having to become ‘student labour’ and hence a large proportion of the surplus labour used to control the casualised service industry workplace.

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