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Laptops and internet are essential parts of education, yet not everyone can afford this technology

by Ross Womersley, CEO of SACOSS

As children across South Australia return to school, many low income families will be struggling with the costs involved – even in our "free" public schools. 

The ASG organisation, which is the largest provider of education scholarship plans in Australia, provides a handy education costs calculator and based on its own survey data. It estimates that getting back to school in Adelaide could cost on average $2,856 per primary school child per year and $4,865 for a secondary school student in public schools. It is obviously a lot more in faith-based and private schools. This comes at a time when many families are already struggling with other cost of living pressures including electricity, water and housing. 

School fees and extracurricular costs are the largest expenditure items in the school year.  The fees are for material or service costs not tuition fees, but they can still be substantial. The ASG calculator finds that Adelaide parents will pay an average of $1,370 per child for public secondary school fees, although those on low incomes can get some financial assistance with these fees. Costs of extracurricular activities can be even more than the fees, but while highly desirable, some at least are discretionary.

By contrast, a newer and less discretionary cost in the school cost mix is the estimated $330 (primary school) and $576 (secondary school) expenditure on technology, including laptops, tablets, software, internet connection and data. When classes utilise digital platforms and homework is set with an assumption of home internet access, these are an essential part of education costs – yet not everyone has access to or can afford this technology.

When I went to school the basic equipment was a pen, exercise book and maybe a calculator. Now it is a laptop or tablet – and that is absolutely appropriate in a digital age if we don’t want anyone left behind. However, it is an extra impost on the household budget, particularly for those on low incomes.

This week the state government recognised the importance of digital connections in education by promising to increase average school internet speeds by an average of ten times. The details and costs of the plan are as yet unclear, but the aspiration for our children to have access to fast internet technology at all schools is right – such technology not only opens up access to information and new forms of expression, it is essential to ensuring that our children have the digital skills which will be needed for the jobs and society of the future.

But the technology is not just limited to the classroom. Education in a digital age also means that families need to be online at home, otherwise kids will struggle with homework and find it harder to keep up. So that’s an additional and ongoing cost for families – and again it is low income households who will struggle most with the extra telecommunication costs.

The research data is pretty clear that low income households are less connected and are likely to get less value for money in telecommunications, but when kids go back to school it reminds us of why those digital connections are so important. It is about our children’s education, the jobs they will get and the way they relate to friends and to the wider world.

There are some things that can be done to ensure that everyone can afford to be online, such as greater provision of free wi-fi (so that all the burden of data costs does not have to fall on the household budget). But at a bigger picture level, as the state’s peak welfare body, SACOSS has been calling on all parties in the upcoming state election to have policies which address access, affordability and capability in using digital technology.

(published in the Adelaide Advertiser Jan 30, 2018)

Published Date: 
Tuesday, 30 January 2018