Working Part-Time to Pay off Student Fees in Australia

studentA question I am often asked by international students thinking of studying in Australia is, ‘Can I work part-time to help pay off my student education fees in Australia?

The costs

moneyThis isn’t a complete budget, it’s very rough, but it gives you an idea of the problem you will face if you are hoping to earn enough money to pay for your education as you go.

Cost of education

educationTuition fees vary quite massively depending on the subject and the university. A basic English language course can cost around $300 per week. According to university reviews, the lowest yearly fee you can expect to pay at a university would be around $20,000, but that would not be in a major city. Expect to pay more for Sydney or Melbourne.

That’s at the low end, an expensive course at a top university could cost you double, treble or even four times that amount. For the sake of this experiment though, let’s go for one of the cheaper courses and budget $400 per week for the cost of education.


Cost of accommodation

HouseI had a look online for rooms to rent in Melbourne for students. The very cheapest I found was $80 per week, but that was sharing one room with four other people in it. That’s to say it was a dormitory style bedroom with five single beds.

If you want a room on your own, expect to pay between $200 and $250 per week. So, like the cost of education, accommodation costs can also vary wildly. For the sake of our budgeting, we are going to assume $150 per week for accommodation.

Cost of food

So what’s the minimum amount of money one student would need to spend on food each week? That’s a tricky one to answer, because as attractive as going cheap may seem, there is the small matter of your ongoing health.

Eating cheap and rubbishy food over a long period of time would be a bad idea. So it’s not good to skimp on the food. According to Study in Australia, a government run website, the cost of groceries and eating out for a student range from between $80-$280 per week.

The same website also quotes average costs for other living expenses, so it’s well worth taking a look. They also quote similar fees for accommodation, with prices varying from $85-$280 per week.

For the sake of our experiment here though, for food, again we will go low at $120 per week


So, what have we got so far?

Barest minimum costs per week

  • Cost of education: $400 per week
  • Cost of accommodation: $150 per week
  • Cost of food: $120 per week

Total so far: $670 per week, that’s almost $35,000 per year.

When I say barest minimum though, it really is that. You will have extra costs on top of this, for example, public transport, entertainment and bills (shared house bills, mobile phone, internet).

Cost of everything

According to an article a couple of years ago, Australia was the most expensive place for international students to get a university education. They ‘estimated an international student in Australia would spend more than $42,000 each year on fees and supporting themselves.‘ – Source: ABC News

That estimate is backed up by the already mentioned Study in Australia website, they quote the minimum cost of living for one year in Australia (excluding tuition fees) of $19,830.

So, with all these figures and estimates, I think it’s more than fair and reasonable to say that you will not be able to study here and survive for less than $40,000 a year.

Potential earnings

International students are only allowed to work 40 hours per fortnight. Some websites quote it as 20 hours per week, but officially it is 40 hours per fortnight, which is slightly different. This is exactly how it is worded on the government’s immigration website:student work40 hours per fortnight gives the students more flexibility. For example, you could have a week off of work and the following week work 40 hours to catch up. If it was 20 hours per week, you wouldn’t be able to do that. That said though, it still only adds up to 1040 hours of work per year, plus whatever you can get during those ‘not in session’ times.

Current minimum wage rates in Australia:

  • 18yo – Base: $12.09 Casual: $15.11
  • 19yo – Base: $14.60 Casual: $18.25
  • 20yo – Base: $17.29 Casual: $21.61
  • 21yo – Base: $17.70 Casual: $22.12


So, with our fictitious budgeting, you will remember that we went low-cost pretty much all the way through it. Even if you didn’t incur any extra costs for entertainment, even if you kept your bills to the absolute minimum, and even if you didn’t get a mobile phone and walked to and from your place of study every day.

Even if you did all that, you are still in for at least $35,000 per year.

Now let’s assume you are over 21 years of age and you managed to secure a casual job at the current minimum wage. You are also able to work the full 1040 hours per year.

Total annual earnings = $23,004.80

As you can see, it’s about $12,000 short of what you need, that’s about $230 per week.

Even if you do work extra long hours when your course is not in session as the rules allow, you would still not make up that shortfall. It can’t be done.

The reality

The reality, it appears, is worse.

The reason I am writing this today is because last week there was a news item on ABC about how shocked international students are at the low pay and long hours they have been expected to work here.

According to a report by ABC’s Story Hunters, many international students are being massively underpaid. The chances of actually securing a job on the minimum wage are very remote.

If the students they spoke to are representative of what’s really going on, then students are actually more likely to earn $8 to $12 per hour. In order to survive, many students are breaking the terms of their student visas by working more than the allocated 40 hours per fortnight.

Their employers are paying cash and not keeping accurate records to allow this to happen. International students are being exploited by employers and have become a form of cheap labour here in Australia.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James explained the four key reasons international students were so vulnerable to this exploitation:

  • Youth
  • Language barriers
  • Loyalty to their employers
  • Fear of losing their visas

These four factors combined are preventing exploited workers from complaining to authorities, but they are not the only reasons. As one restaurant employee who worked with 17 other exploited international students explained, complaining will just get the business closed down and then everybody will lose their jobs, including the boss.

That explains why there are so few complaints being made about this at all.

We’ve seen this kind of work exploitation before, just over a year ago I wrote about this sort of thing in the post called 417 Visa Working Holiday Holders (WHV) and Slavery in Australia. Seems it’s not just 417 visa holders, but also student visa holders that are being exploited.

On top of that, generally speaking it is more difficult to land a job of any nature in Australia at the moment, I spoke about that in my post called What’s It Really like Trying to Find a Job in Australia? – 2015.

So that’s a very long answer to the question ‘Can I work part-time to help pay off my student education fees in Australia?‘ If you are looking for a shorter answer though, may I suggest…

It is highly unlikely.

For the full story and to watch the videos by Story Hunters on international student exploitation, visit ABC News: High fees, low pay.

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