What about me? Paid placements for some university students, but not others

9 MAY 2024

What about me? Paid placements for some university students, but not others

A Charles Sturt University student tells her story of what it is like battling through extended periods of unpaid placements to qualify for her degree.

After repeated and ongoing cries for financial support from struggling university students to reduce ‘placement poverty, the Australian Government finally announced minimum wage relief for students studying nursing, midwifery, teaching and social work, while on placements.

However, this support will not commence until July 2025 and neglects any financial assistance for university students on placements who are studying courses in an array of other areas, many of which are industries experiencing critical skills shortages.  

Third-year Bachelor of Medical Radiation Science (diagnostic radiography) student at Charles Sturt University Ms Kate Mansfield tells her story of what it is like being a struggling university student who must attend 53 weeks of unpaid placement experience to qualify for her degree. This is made worse by the current cost-of-living crisis. 

The significance of university placements

Placement is a crucial part of a student’s academic path and future career endeavours.

I am in my third year of a Bachelor of Medical Radiation Science (diagnostic radiography) and within my degree, I am mandated to complete 53 weeks of compulsory, unpaid placements, which totals 1,977 hours.  

I welcome the placement experiences, as this type of learning facilitates the transformation of our theoretical knowledge into workplace skills as we get hands-on experience in our chosen field. We are introduced to a network of industry experts, offering valuable advice, guidance and even potential future employment possibilities, which is invaluable.

Unfortunately, however, the financial hurdles encountered by university students during placement exert such an emotional strain that students are deprived of fully utilising the valuable workplace learning experience. This leaves students feeling defeated and can even turn them off the industry altogether.

The financial strain linked to placements

‘Placement poverty’ describes the financial circumstances experienced by students as they undertake extended periods of unpaid placement. This is characterised by severe financial pressures, often leading students to extreme situations, such as sleeping in their car and skipping meals.

Full-time placement deprives us of opportunities to earn income, leaving us financially vulnerable. Without savings, we lack the means to properly support ourselves. This makes placement a considerable challenge and a potential barrier to entry as some students can simply not afford to go on placement and therefore cannot study that degree.

The challenges with unpaid placements also extend far beyond not being paid for our time and effort in assisting that industry. University students are required to invest a considerable amount of funds to relocate for their coursework and placements, all while accumulating thousands in student debt.

I had to move from regional Tasmania to Port Macquarie to commence my degree, which is not offered in Tasmania. I have since completed placements in Brisbane and the Gold Coast as there is not enough placement sites in and surrounding Port Macquarie for all students. I cannot justify the expense of flights to return home to Tasmania for placement.  

Before placement, while attending full-time university, I had to find part-time employment to cover living expenses without depleting the savings I had accumulated since starting part-time work at the age of 14. However, because of university placement, I was taken off the roaster at my job in Port Macquarie due to extended periods away from placement.

Currently, it feels like attending university puts you behind in life. My friends back home have secured full-time jobs and are considering buying houses. I am a full-time university student burdened with a large HECS debt. Extended periods of full-time placements make it unrealistic for me to pursue paid employment, forcing me to rely solely on my savings.

How the Charles Sturt University Professional Placement Equity Grant will alleviate the financial pressure

The Professional Placement Equity Grant Charles Sturt University has provided me with will significantly help with some of the costs associated with placement. It will take tremendous financial pressure off me while attending my upcoming placement.

My upcoming placement spans six weeks in Brisbane. The costs associated with relocating to Brisbane include fuel expenses and accommodation while residing there, in addition to continuing to pay rent in Port Macquarie.

I also just got my car serviced to ensure it is road-worthy and that I will make it to Brisbane. While on placement, I will still be required to pay for basic living expenses, such as food, fuel and parking. Additional expenses for placement include uniforms, specific shoes and multiple mandatory vaccinations.

This scholarship will alleviate financial strain and emotional load allowing me to fully embrace placement and gain maximum benefit from this learning opportunity.

 What steps should the government take going forward?

I ask the government to consider the following options, to alleviate the ongoing stress many university students will continue to experience while trying to complete a university education with mandatory placements:

  • Cover or subsidise some of the expenses associated with placement, in particular mandatory vaccinations, uniforms and accommodation
  • Make placement payments the minimum wage for the rest of us – not just those studying nursing, teaching, social work or midwifery
  • Increase the number of scholarships available for students having to undertake placements
  • Reduce the independent age, making Youth Allowance available for students under 22 years of age and/or reduce the combined parental income amount.

My parents earned just above the combined income, so I was only eligible for Centrelink this year when I turned 22 (my fourth year of university). This also meant I was not eligible for most scholarships until now as they will not consider you if you’re not receiving Centrelink payments as this shows ‘financial hardship’. This is despite the fact that my parents cannot afford to financially support me, so I continue to struggle to support myself through this degree.

I implore the government to make changes that encourage students to attend and complete university, rather than having to battle through what is fast becoming a very broken system. The current system makes a university qualification almost unattainable in the modern day, particularly amid a cost-of-living crisis. 

ENDS

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Ms Kate Mansfield, contact Trease Clarke at Charles Sturt Media on 0409 741 789 or news@csu.edu.au

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