A major plank of the federal goverment’s bid to overhaul Australian universities is ensuring more students from diverse backgrounds finish university.
So far, the Universities Accord’s interim report has identified compulsory, unpaid work placements as a significant barrier.
Students often must take time out of paid work for these placements which can take place over multi-week blocks away from home.
We previously found compulsory unpaid placements lead to financial stress for students and are unsustainable. Our new survey research provides three ways to address “placement poverty”.
What are work placements?
Many professional courses, such as nursing, teaching, social work, psychology and the allied health professions, have significant work placement requirements.
For example, social work students need to complete 1,000 hours (nearly half a year) of full-time, unpaid work experience to graduate.
These placements are hugely important for student learning, but the time commitment means students often have to give up paid work. There can also be extra travel and clothing costs.
Our 2022 research has shown how the resulting financial hardship and stress can stop students completing their degrees. It can also prevent people even considering university study, especially those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Australian Council of Heads of Social Work Education recently commissioned research to identify solutions. This 2023 study involved a nationwide survey of almost 1,200 participants: 701 social work students, 196 educators and 294 practitioners.
It highlighted several potential ways to fix this situation.
1. Change the Fair Work Act
Students in our survey reported they are regularly used as free labour to fill staff shortages in organisations that are not adequately resourced.
While placements should provide opportunities for learning (to develop new skills under supervision and within a supported environment), more than half the educators surveyed reported service providers won’t take students if they don’t already have the skills to perform the required work.
A further 43% of educators said organisations refused to host a student if they didn’t perform well during a pre-placement interview. This means organisations are routinely screening students to ensure they can perform unpaid work while on placement.
As one student told us:
While I understand we are students, we are still being expected to work, manage clients and assist in support roles (many of which are emotionally taxing and complex) so I believe being unpaid for this is unethical.
To fix this, we recommend the federal parliament changes the Fair Work Act, so vocational placements must be paid. At the moment it is legal for them to be unpaid.
2. Pay students a minimum wage
Students in our research also talked about the importance of being paid from a cost-of-living perspective.
As a mature age student with two young children, it is impossible for me to be unpaid and undertake placement.
The Universities Accord interim report has suggested changes to the Higher Education Loans Program (HELP) (such as reduced fees), but this won’t help students with the upfront costs of daily living while doing placements.
The United Kingdom offers a bursary through the National Health Service to cover students’ expenses while on placement.
Despite the importance of paying students at least a minimum wage, it is clear the organisations they work for cannot pay. These mostly non-profit organisations are already underfunded. Existing placement shortages will only worsen if organisations are expected to pay.
Universities cannot pay either. There is no country in the world where universities pay students to do placements. And while there’s a perception some universities are flush with cash, the spoils are not spread evenly. Smaller, regional institutions would be most disadvantaged.
Higher education funding has also been shrinking for decades, so universities are forced to operate like businesses. Within this context, any costs they incur for placements would likely be passed onto students. Some universities may simply ditch professional courses if they become too expensive to run.
This means the Australian government will have to pay, as an investment into vital professions, especially if we are to address workforce shortages.
This would mean the price tag for government would be in the millions (not billions) of dollars. It would also meet multiple goals of the Universities Accord. Along with improving equity, it also seeks to meet future skills needs.
3. Change how learning is measured
An additional solution is for professional regulatory bodies to emphasise demonstrated learning outcomes, instead of an arbitrary “placement hours” approach.
During COVID, innovative strategies were trialled when many students could not complete regular face-to-face placements. As one educator told us:
[These] showed that students could achieve success in their placement and learning with less time and more flexibility.
The most popular strategies to help reduce student poverty, as ranked by our respondents, were reducing placement hours by up to 20%, increasing recognition of prior learning, and allowing students to do a placement in an existing workplace.
Currently, social work students cannot do a placement in their pre-existing role, even if the work is directly relevant.
Developing a “capability framework” (that measures acquired learning, instead of hours served) also had overwhelming support. One practitioner said:
More focus on demonstrating learning as opposed to just ‘ticking off hours’ could lead to shorter placements with a higher focus on the quality of learning.
What about learning?
Learning and working go hand in hand on placement. While current standards are often presumed to produce competent and ethical practitioners, our research shows students are being financially stretched and stressed.
We all need our professionals to be well prepared for the workplace. We also know poverty and stress do not help students concentrate or learn. Reflecting on their student experience, one practitioner told us:
For me it became just getting the hours done, rather than learning.
Students should be reasonably compensated for the work they are doing. In addition to payment, research shows that reducing hours, and introducing more flexible work-based placements and ways to measure learning, would help.
The final Universities Accord report is due in December. There is a genuine opportunity here to end placement poverty.