Student placements need more funding, universities tell states

Mandatory unpaid work experience that forms part of nursing and teaching degrees in Australia plunges students into ‘placement poverty’, Queensland forum hears

June 2, 2023
Nurses looking at chart
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Australian students are enduring “unbearable” conditions and “placement poverty” as they undertake the mandatory practical components of their degrees, a Brisbane forum has heard.

University administrators have called on state and territory governments to consider “putting some money on the table” to support students on placement in schools and hospitals, as they described the difficult circumstances many were experiencing. 

Griffith University vice-chancellor Carolyn Evans related a story of a mature midwifery student who had lived in her car for six weeks. The woman could not afford accommodation during her placement at a distant hospital, after covering childcare costs for the children she had left behind, she said.

“This was not a one-off case,” Professor Evans told the THE Campus Live ANZ event at the University of Queensland. “Are we making things unbearable for some people?

“We shouldn’t take the most vulnerable people and make them the ones who have to pay for the deficiency of our healthcare system.”

Students undertaking professional degrees such as nursing or teaching spend as much as 800 hours on unpaid placements, sometimes in regional areas far from home – incurring the double blow of extra living costs and loss of wages from the part-time jobs that sustain them.

Rob O’Connor, a public policy specialist at Charles Sturt University, said state funding was the “big gap” in placements. He said state governments routinely decried the lack of teachers, nurses and police officers at election time. “They’re very rarely engaging universities as part of that conversation,” he told the conference.

Instead, they had devised schemes to pay off the student loans of nursing recruits – initiatives considered ineffective in encouraging new enrolments.

“If we want to have conversations with state governments about better coordination and placements for nurses, for clinical psychologists, for teachers, there are other things we can be talking to state governments about too – especially when it comes to cost-of-living support for students on placement.”

Professor Evans, a constitutional lawyer, said the federal government had increasingly assumed the funding burden in “major state areas of responsibility” such as education and health.

She said state governments, which carry responsibility for service delivery in such areas, were using universities as a “back road” to effectively obtain federal government money.

“Is it time to rethink the whole deal…about the extent to which money for education is going in the right places?” she asked. “We…need a much more joined-up approach between state and federal governments – everything from funding to thinking through that whole lifecycle of education.”

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