'We can no longer justify unpaid labour': why uni students need to be paid for work placements


This article is part of our series on big ideas for the Universities Accord. The federal government is calling for ideas to “reshape and reimagine higher education, and set it up for the next decade and beyond”. A review team is due to finish a draft report in June and a final report in December 2023.

Mandatory work placements are a vital part of many university degrees. This includes some of the most important degrees in our society, such as nursing, teaching, social work, psychology and the allied health professions.

The time these require varies but is always significant. For example, for social work and occupational therapy programs it is 1,000 hours. Nursing degrees require at least 800 hours of placement. Undergraduate education students need to complete at least 80 days of professional experience.

These positions are not paid.

Amid a cost-of-living crisis, with rising university fees, we can no longer expect students to do this work for free. The Universities Accord has placed a big emphasis on equity and improving participation in higher education. As part of this, it needs to make sure students are not penalised for completing necessary parts of their degrees.

Our research

Late last year, the Australian Council of Heads of School of Social Work commissioned a survey about work experience placements and I led the research team.

More than 700 students around the country responded to the survey, which asked about current challenges for field education, particularly given the COVID pandemic.

We also received nearly 500 responses from educators and practitioners in organisations who host these students.

Income deficits and hidden costs

Our survey found the financial burden of placements on students could be crippling.

Work placements invariably mean students have to travel, potentially pay for parking and wear professional clothing. This immediately leaves students out-of-pocket. As one survey respondent told us:

The extent of the hours and […] the cost of petrol and transport made my placement experience a financial issue.

But students also often have to forgo paid work they have in order to meet their course requirements. As one student noted:

To do unpaid work we have to choose between putting petrol in the car to get to placement or putting food in our stomachs.

More than a third of students (33.7%) said they lost their entire weekly income because of field placement. Another 25% had lost up to 75% of their regular wage.

More than 96% of students said they didn’t have enough money to pay for food, or the clothes and travel required for placement. More than 79% said they knew of other students who have had to defer their social work studies or withdraw from the degree altogether due to placement requirements.

Many told us they had incurred large debts from additional student loans “due to lack of resources”. Others talked about a total disruption to their lives:

I will need to […] resign from my full-time employment and relocate as I will not be able to afford my rent in the city.

This is harming mental health

The disruption caused by work placements was not just financial. Almost 80% said their mental health had been adversely affected due to the financial hardship associated with their placement. As these students noted:

My mental health has never been so bad after doing placement and now I have to do another one. I have no idea how I’m going to live on such little money for six [more] months.

Students also explained this made it hard to benefit educationally from the placement:

How are we meant to meet learning competencies, support clients to the best of our abilities if we ourselves are suffering due to unfair, unrealistic placement expectations?

Another told us, the placement became just about “getting the hours done, rather than learning”.

What can we change?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, students overwhelmingly supported being paid for field placements. Some described the current situation as “unethical”.

I am already struggling with providing basic needs for my family, such as childcare, mortgage [without being on placement].

This was endorsed by social work educators and practitioners who said “we can no longer justify unpaid labour”.

This idea is not a new one. It has long been been proposed for disciplines such as nursing and education.

Paid placements are the way forward

We need an immediate restructure of how student placements are conceptualised and funded.

We pay apprenticeship wages for trades, so why not support students who are studying vital professions? There are many ways it could work, but here are three possibilities:

  1. the government funds organisations who take students on placement to pay them for their work

  2. the government funds universities to pay students a bursary, or

  3. students doing a placement apply through Services Australia for a special temporary payment.

Whichever way we do it, we need to stop assuming all university students have wealthy parents who can fund their studies. And we need to stop pretending free labour is they best way for students to learn.

Read more: Why arts degrees and other generalist programs are the future of Australian higher education

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Christine Morley, Queensland University of Technology.

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Christine Morley received partial funding from the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work to undertake the research that informed this article The research team also included: Vanessa Ryan (QUT) Dr Lisa Hodge (CDU), Dr Maree Higgins (UNSW), Prof Linda Briskman (WSU), Dr Robyn Martin (RMIT) and Dr Nicole Hill (UoM).