Studying at an Australian university has long been linked to student poverty, but it is now becoming much worse, especially in applied, professional disciplines such as social work.
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The high cost of living and the challenges of unpaid university placements

Unpaid labour or valuable experience? Should placement requirements be revised to reduce hours and increase financial support for students?

This article has been written by third party authors, who are independent of The Academic. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of The Academic, and solely reflects the opinions of the article’s authors.

Studying at an Australian university has long been linked to student poverty, but it is becoming much worse, especially in applied and professional disciplines such as social work. This is partly due to the spiralling cost of living, making essential items, including food, rent, petrol, and energy, much more expensive and unaffordable for many. In the last year, all living costs indices have risen between 7.1% and 9.6%,  with households that depend on a wage having to endure a 78.9% increase in mortgage repayments. While basic provisions are becoming more expensive, wages ‘real’ value has decreased by 4.5% over the last year, the largest decline in Australian history. Meanwhile, there has been no substantial corresponding increase in the financial support provided by the government to students since 1994.

Social work placements, loss of paid work and poverty

While field education has always been an important part of many professional degrees, social work students are required to complete 1000 hours of placement in total in order to graduate. These placements are usually unpaid and last for approximately three to four months each, which means that students are unable to earn an income for two lengthy periods.  Losing paid work in order to complete unpaid placement hours causes significant financial loss and stress. As this student explains:

Placement requirements have resulted in me losing four days [a] week income. I am the primary income earner in my family. My partner works part time only. It has cost me over $25k in lost wages doing my placement.

A Student

Some students simply cannot work at all while doing placement because, for example, their employers demand greater availability than they can offer or because they are simply ‘too mentally and physically drained to work after… finish[ing] placement for the day.’

Many students who relinquish secure, full-time, ongoing work in order to do placement are disadvantaged when they return to paid work after their placement finishes due to having to accept insecure, casualised work.

Compounding the loss of income, doing a placement also costs students money. Additional childcare fees, fuel or public transport costs to travel to placement, and parking costs while at the placement are among the unexpected costs.

This information was gathered through a survey conducted involving 372 undergraduate and Masters qualifying social work students from four universities located in different states.They told usthat the  placements are making them ‘poor.’ Over 66% of students indicated that placement requirements had forced them into financial precarity or poverty. As this student explains:

I have not been able to [support myself].  I have redrawn my mortgage and delayed payments.  I have maxed out my credit card and have increased my debt.  I have an accumulation of large payments which are due or overdue such as car registration or licence renewal.  I have exhausted my savings.  I have borrowed money from my parents to pay bills.

A Student

Another student similarly describes the financial burden:

 I can’t afford healthy food. I have to ration everything. Some days I don’t have enough petrol to leave the house—I have to reserve all my petrol to get to and from field placement. I had my internet disconnected. I’ve defaulted twice with my finance company and my phone is about to be disconnected.

A Student

The overwhelming message from the data showed that social work students on placement are ‘struggling to put food on the table.’ Ironically, some even talked about ‘having to access emergency food relief’ while doing unpaid placement work to assist clients enduring the same hardships.

Student placements and over-work

Other students who work alongside placement in order to make ends meet said this often came at the expense of their health, well-being and relationships with others.  These students talked about working extreme hours to manage excessive workloads, with 25% indicating they were working 20-30+ hours a week on top of their placements. They described working night and day, 7 days per week and having no time to do anything else:

I cleaned rooms before placement, did night shift hours, worked cleaning on weekends.

A Student

One student talked about working ‘80 hours a week between the two’ before being forced to resign from the paid work due to burning out. 

Students explained that the over-work caused a lack of downtime, which resulted in them being unable to focus on learning while at placement. Not surprisingly, they also articulated the consequences for their psychological well-being:

The straight lot of 500 hours has taken a hard toll on my mental health, finances, personal life, relationships and all aspects of my life.

A Student

The urgent need for change

Field education and experience are important for future practice, but students are describing the unpaid labour associated with their placements as ‘incredibly unfair and unrealistic.’  The findings confirm the need for an urgent and major rethink of current placement requirements, including a review and reduction of the number of hours and potentially the number of placements; a reconsideration of the compulsory nature of placement; increased provision for work-based placements, including allowing students to undertake a placement in their existing social work-related role; increased recognition of prior learning, and increased options for paid placement/internships and financial support for students undertaking unpaid placements. To guarantee paid placements, the findings ideally point to the need for the Commonwealth Government to invest in supporting students to do placements, especially in vital professions where there are workforce shortages. We pay wages to apprentices to learn a trade; why not financial support for students learning a profession? (especially when they are routinely used for labour shortages in underfunded human services organisations).  Calls to end unpaid placements extend to a range of professions, including nursing, education, medicine, psychology and occupational therapy.

Financial support could be implemented by resourcing organisations that host placements to pay interns, or resourcing universities to pay students a bursary and waive fees for field education units, or by Services Australia providing direct financial assistance to all students on placement. Whatever it happens, we need to stop imposing this archaic system, reminiscent of the indentured servitude of convicts, which masquerades as best-practice learning, and start properly supporting our students and their learning, as they are the professional practitioners of the future.

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Journal reference

Morley, C., Hodge, L., Clarke, J., McIntyre, H., Mays, J., Briese, J., & Kostecki, T. (2023). ‘THIS UNPAID PLACEMENT MAKES YOU POOR’: Australian social work students’ experiences of the financial burden of field education. Social Work Education, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/02615479.2022.2161507

Professor Christine Morley is the Head of the Social Work and Human Services Discipline and Program Lead for the 'Access to Justice' research stream in the Centre for Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She is recognized as an international expert in critical social work education and practice and has extensive publications in these fields. Her books include "Engaging with Social Work" (2nd edition) and "The Routledge Handbook of Critical Pedagogies for Social Work."

Dr Lisa Hodge is an Associate Professor and Head of Discipline for Social Work in the Faculty of Health at Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Australia. Lisa's research focuses on the impact of unpaid work-integrated learning on students' mental health and well-being, as well as the connection between mental ill-health and trauma in a broader context. She has published extensively in these fields, including her recent book, "Eating Disorders and Child Sexual Abuse."