JESS Philbrook knows how it feels to have to juggle personal upheaval with the pressure to maintain good grades.
Ms Philbrook, 21, had relocated from Forster to Newcastle to begin her double degree in social science and law when her relationship ended and she needed legal help.
"When you experience something traumatic like that it has a ripple effect and it affects all parts of your life, your mental health, your ability to study and focus," she said.
"There wasn't anyone I could turn to and I had the very real risk of failing in my first year - and if it wasn't for myself pulling me out of that and just moving along and doing it on my own, I probably would have failed.
"But now I get high distinctions, so obviously it's not because I'm incompetent."
Ms Philbrook and the University of Newcastle Students' Association oppose the federal government's Job-ready Graduates legislation, which will see students with low completion or progression rates - failing more than 50 per cent of eight or more units in a bachelor course - no longer able to access a Commonwealth supported place, HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP.
If a student demonstrates adverse circumstances - such as illness or bereavement - their university can allow for consideration of these impacts.
Education Minister Dan Tehan said the changes would ensure the sector assessed students' suitability to their course on an ongoing basis, not just at enrolment.
Ms Philbrook said the plan was "immoral".
"We need a dialogue between the government and students because right now I feel the government doesn't consult students at all - and you can't make a decision on behalf of an entire body of people when you don't communicate with them at all," she said.
"There has been callous disregard for the external pressures students face and the multitude of reasons why a student might be failing. It's not just that they're incompetent, it could be they have factors they're battling outside the classroom that people just never see."
She said students may fail but return to studies and excel; not perform well in standardised testing, or have disabilities or health conditions that affect them on certain days.
"I think in such a tumultuous and uncertain time as characterised by everything with COVID, but also just in general with the insecurity of higher education, it's nothing more than a cruel attack on students when all we need right now is more support than ever."
Third year business and law student Tabitha Lethlean said the plan would hit the most vulnerable the hardest.
University of Newcastle Students' Association president Luka Harrison said the plan was a "disgraceful attack on students".
"From excluding universities from Jobkeeper to the proposed cuts to now threatening the HECS loan system, the federal government has abandoned the tertiary education sector during its greatest crisis," he said.
"The HECS system, whilst not perfect, allows for those from low socioeconomic backgrounds to attend university. Any attack on HECS is an attack on the working class.
"Instead of punishing struggling students, the federal government should be supporting students.
"In a time characterised by uncertainty and anxiety, especially for students, the government's cruel proposal only further restricts and ostracises individuals who are already struggling.
"We know from research and conversations that student studies are significantly impacted by factors often outside of their own control, whether that be carer responsibilities, job insecurity or ongoing medical conditions.
"The new proposal masquerading as helpful reform, is nothing more than a ploy by Mr Tehan to continue his attack on the tertiary sector and discourage current and prospective students from building upon their skills and social capital.
"No student should be left behind. Instead of threatening to remove financial support to students obviously struggling, the government should be asking the question of why they are struggling and how they can assist universities in supporting these students."
The National Tertiary Education Union Newcastle branch vice president (academic) Terry Summers said universities "already track student performance and look after, as much as they can, student welfare with regard to their ability to complete courses and programs of study".
"This is, rightly, the role of Deans of Faculties and subject matter experts not government ministers," Dr Summers said.
"It seems to me that Minister Tehan's proposal is just another way cutting its expenditure on universities and along the way punishing students who may have just had a bad time in first year or who have struggled to come to terms with life outside of home for the first time.
"I personally know of many students who have failed more than half their courses at their first attempt and then gone on to have stellar academic and professional careers.
"This proposal if it goes forward would effectively prohibit students like these from fulfilling their potential and providing the full benefit to society.
"If Minister Tehan really cared about higher education he would have stepped in to help universities navigate the greatest crisis in their history. Instead he is doubling the cost of many degrees and loading huge, unsustainable debt onto the shoulders of Australian students.
"In short I can see no merit from a student, university or community perspective, in this latest proposal, at all. It looks like another pure cost saving measure."
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