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An end to placement poverty?

The government has announced a new weekly Commonwealth Prac payment for students when on professional placement. But will it be enough to end placement poverty?

The phrase ‘placement poverty’ may have become part of the lexicon only recently, but unpaid student placements and the financial burden they have on students have been around for decades. Certain degrees, including teaching, nursing and social work, require students to undertake up to 1,000 hours of unpaid placements as a mandatory requirement for graduating. While no one has ever suggested that placements should be abolished, the fact that students are working for free, in a time of economic strangulation, has placed enormous pressure on our future educators and carers.

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Teaching students have the shortest of the prac requirements at 80 days or 16 weeks, followed by nursing at 20 weeks and then social work at 26 weeks. Other allied health degrees such as speech therapy and occupational therapy require up to 1,000 hours of full-time work.

Reports of tertiary students having to give up their paid jobs to accommodate their placements, sometimes forcing them out of their rentals and back home to live with parents, forgoing proper nutrition and other unhealthy situations have become common, leading to a national campaign and protests.

Government announces new payment

In the recent May 2024 budget, the government announced the new Commonwealth Prac Payment, comparable to the Austudy payment of around $320 per week. Designed to assist over 70,000 students studying teaching, social work, midwifery and nursing, the payment is in addition to any other payments they already receive.

“This is practical support for practical training,” said Minister for Education, Jason Clare. “Placement poverty is a real thing. I have met students who told me they can afford to go to uni, but they can’t afford to do the prac.” 

Reactions to the announcement have been mixed.

Professor Theo Farrell, Vice Chancellor of La Trobe University said:

“We warmly welcome the government’s announcements around providing cost-of-living support to students through reducing HECS-HELP debt and by supporting students on placement. We know that if we are to build the skilled workforce Australia needs in critical areas like nursing, teaching, midwifery and social work – providing financial support for students on mandatory placements is an important step towards ensuring these students can afford to continue their studies and go on to successful careers in areas of key workforce demand.”

But James Sherriff, spokesperson for Students Against Placement Poverty has said: “Without a living wage now, students remain in placement poverty despite winning an important concession from the government. Students Against Placement Poverty notes that this change will do very little to alleviate placement poverty in the vast majority of cases, and urges that more drastic change is needed immediately.”

Vitally, the newly announced payments will not benefit this year’s thousands of prac students. The payment is not expected to start until July 2025, and the mean-tested aspect still needs to be worked out.

Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens and spokesperson for Education, Senator Mehreen Faruqi, has said “Every student should be paid for every hour of work they are required to do. The payment should be universal and not limited by degrees. Students should be paid at least minimum wage for their work on placement, not a lesser supplementary amount.”

She adds: “During this cost-of-living crisis, unpaid placements are forcing students to choose between putting fuel in the car to get to their placement or putting food on the table every day. It’s a slap in the face from the Government to ignore the many students experiencing placement poverty right now. What are they supposed to do until 1 July 2025?”

While the new payment is widely acknowledged to be a step in the right direction, there is still a way to go.

“We welcome the establishment of paid practicums for teaching students. Australia is experiencing a chronic teacher shortage and one of the key issues has been attracting new students into Initial Teacher Education,” said AEU Federal President Correna Haythorpe.

“As part of the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan discussions, the AEU raised the critical issue of attraction and retention and in particular the importance of paid internships and paid practicums. However much more needs to be done, including addressing chronic workloads, fully funded professional development and mentoring programs to support teachers as they begin their profession.

 

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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