Support call for compulsory unpaid study placements

Financially independent students can’t afford to participate in full-time unpaid placements. Photo Courtney Gillespie
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Students facing unpaid placement say it can results in academic and financial hardship. Courtney Gillespie reports.
Lauren Litchfield was forced to take a leave of absence after a lack of financial support. Photo Courtney Gillespie

In 2017 Lauren Litchfield was just like any other 20-year-old.

Juggling a retail job, a social life, and her university studies was hard but worthwhile work.

Lauren was working at Cotton On as a casual employee and studying at the University of South Australia with dreams of becoming a qualified and registered Occupational Therapist.

As a young girl, Lauren had been sent away to boarding school in Adelaide. After graduating high school, she lived on campus at UniSA for three years and what she lacked in family, she made up for in friends.

Everything was on track for her to graduate at the end of 2018, she says.

Until suddenly, it wasn’t.

After being financially supported by her family for the first three years of her degree, Lauren says she had been completely cut off.

For the first time in her life, Lauren was financially independent. And, it was at the worst possible time.

The final year of her degree is a crucial one. Students are expected to complete 27 weeks of full time, unpaid placement. During this time, students learn how to apply theory and practice to the workforce.

This is not an uncommon practice.

According to the Department of Education and Training, at the beginning of 2018 there were over one million Australian students participating in special courses, most of which require unpaid compulsory placements.

Financially independent students can’t afford to participate in full-time unpaid placements. Photo Courtney Gillespie

Special courses include, but are not limited to, those required for nursing, teaching, medical, veterinary, dental, and psychology registration.

The number of students participating in special courses each year is also increasing with a 3.1 per cent increase from 2017 to 2018.

Associate Director for Careers and Employability at Swinburne University of Technology, Deb McDonald, said that unpaid placements are crucial for students participating in courses that require registration.

“It’s one thing to learn your theory in class, but then you get to the workforce and you have to be able to apply it,” she said.

“While students may not be paid, there is a lot of value. They are being nurtured in a way that is enhancing their learning.”  

But, for Lauren and many other financially independent students, taking long periods of time off work to complete compulsory unpaid placement is not feasible.  

Lauren’s placement involves three nine-week blocks of intensive full-time placement. During these nine-weeks, she said that students are expected to spend any free time they have working on their professional portfolio.

With almost no spare time, Lauren realised she would not be able to earn enough money to support herself throughout her placement.

“I have to pay my bills and feed myself. I can’t do that if I’m doing unpaid placement and have no financial support,” she said.

Faced with the possibility of being unable to complete her degree, Lauren turned to Centrelink for help.

On its website, Centrelink states that citizens aged 18 to 24 who are studying full time may be eligible for Youth Allowance.

At age 20 and studying full-time, Lauren fell within these requirements.

Yet, when she approached Centrelink, she was turned away because her father earns too much money making her ineligible.

“I didn’t even get to put my application in because the minute I went up and told them that my dad was a pilot I was turned away,” she said.

Lauren was told she required a statutory declaration signed by her estranged father to prove she is no longer financially supported by him. Until she can provide the declaration, she is unable to access Youth Allowance.

“That was just not a realistic option,” she said.  

Faced with no other options for financial support, Lauren was forced to take a break from university in her final year.

“I had to make the decision to take a Leave of Absence because I couldn’t afford to work unpaid,” she said.

Lauren said that this was not an easy decision to make.

After applying for a Leave of Absence, she had to move off campus and away from her friends. She also knew she would have to watch them all graduate without her.

Lauren, who already suffered from anxiety, was also forced to move to Melbourne where she would be closer to her extended family after her anxiety skyrocketed from the ordeal.

“The experience definitely had an impact on my mental health. I needed to move for support for my mental health,” she said.

For students who are financially supported, placements can be an exciting and enjoyable time.

Louisa Xie is in the final year of her Physiotherapy degree at Monash University.

Over the duration of her final year, she must complete 17-weeks of compulsory unpaid placement. Fortunately for Louisa, she has been financially supported by her parents the entire time.

Her parents also run their own swimming school which she works at on weekends. This means she is not only financially supported by her parents, but she also has the flexibility of working when it is most convenient for her during her placement periods.

Louisa is one of the lucky ones.  

“I am very thankful for the support that I have, and I know that without it, completing my degree would be much harder and much more stressful,” she said.  

Lauren said the disparity between student experiences whilst undertaking placement is an unfair one.

While some enjoy a relatively stress-free placement period, others are burdened by financial stress or are forced to drop out entirely.

McDonald admits that for students like Lauren, the situation is unfortunate.

Under the Fair Work Act, long periods of unpaid placements are entirely legal.

According to Fair Work, there are four main criteria points to a lawful, unpaid vocational placements.

The four criteria points are as follows: there must be a placement, there is no entitlement to pay, the placement must be a requirement of the education/training course, and the placement must be approved under Australian, state or tertiary law.

If these criteria points are satisfied the host is not required to pay students during their placement under the Fair Work Act.

While Lauren agrees that the placement periods are necessary and beneficial, she doesn’t think that there is enough support for students in positions like hers.

When confronted with the prospect of taking time off her degree, Lauren said she reached out to her university supervisors many times but received no response.

“I have tried to contact the occupational therapy staff about my situation more than five times by email and phone. I haven’t heard anything back,” she said.  

In 2019, Lauren is no closer to finishing her degree. She is currently on her second Leave of Absence and has been working on and off full time to save enough money to financially support herself throughout her last year.

Unfortunately, the future seems bleak and Lauren is now looking at other options and other degrees.

It looks as though she will have to give up her dream of becoming an Occupational Therapist.

Lauren said that she feels like she has wasted a lot of time and money on a degree that she is unable to complete.

“There need to be better systems in place to stop situations like this occurring,” she said.

McDonald said there should be a better screening system for students like Lauren. She said that universities need to be aware that there will be students trying to complete degrees that require unpaid placements who have little to no financial support.

“Students need to be aware of the requirements and if they will be able to fulfil these requirements,” she said. “Ideally, before they begin the degree.”

Yet, for students like Lauren who suffered financial hardship without warning, there has not been enough support.

She said university courses with placements should try and alter the placement blocks to fit the needs of their students.  

“One week on and one week off would work a lot better. In their off weeks, students would be able to work more and should then hopefully be able to support themselves,” she said.

Lauren also said that there should be more financial support from the university and the government. She said the lack of mental, financial, and academic support during this time has been unacceptable.

“No one should be in a position like mine. It is unfair,” she said. “My ability to finish my degree should not depend on my financial situation.”