Surviving on a shoestring

Vocational students going on mandatory unpaid placement are among the many Australians struggling to keep up with rising costs of living – and they’re demanding a better deal. 

Students in vocational programs including nursing, social work, teaching and hospitality are required to complete full-time practical work experience ranging anywhere from 500 to 1000 hours to gain their qualifications.

Some students undertaking work placement are expected to work up to 1000 hours unpaid. Infographic: Rebeka Petroska.

These placements are typically unpaid and leave many students struggling to keep up with costs of bills, food, fuel and other necessities.

Charles Darwin University Associate Professor of Social Work Lisa Hodge says work-integrated learning has been identified as one of the most valuable elements of education.

“Vocational placements expose students to hands-on and real world situations and are mandated by a course’s accreditation body.”

According to the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), the educational standards for professional accreditation in social work require students to undertake 1000 hours of unpaid placement.  

“This is distributed in two 500-hour blocks, one in their third year and one in their fourth year for the bachelor’s degree and one each year of the Master’s degree,” says Dr Hodge.  

She says prolonged periods of unpaid vocational work leave students burnt out and unable to keep up with the cost of living. 

“Unpaid placements impede students’ capacity to do paid work while studying,” she says.

“This impacts on their ability to afford essential items such as rent, food, transport, health care and even child care.”

Unfortunately with the rising costs of living, many students are forced to continue to work their part-time job during their placement or have to rely on family and friends for financial support.

Placements are leaving many students struggling to make ends meet. Photo: Rebeka Petroska.

Simona Burnazov, 20, from Embleton is in her third year of social work studies at Curtin University.

“I am currently in week nine of my placement. I have another five weeks left.” 

Miss Burnazov says she is required to complete 40 to 50 hours a week of unpaid placement.

“I am doing nine to five, Monday to Friday for 14 weeks.” 

She says she has had to work her casual job around placement to keep up with living costs. 

For Miss Burnazov this means heading straight to work after a full day on placement and even working weekends.

“Some days I have to be up at 5:30am and I’m not finishing my day until 9:30pm. I get home, eat dinner, shower and do it all over again the next day. These are extremely long days and to constantly do that for 14 weeks has been a real struggle.”

Simona Burnazov

She says being on placement has come with many financial challenges.

“Especially now, the cost of petrol has gone up, I can’t afford to leave my house. I have to save up all of my fuel just to go to and from placement. I have to afford groceries and even clothes for my placement. 

“Before I went on placement I was required to do a series of medical tests, vaccinations, all of these expenses you have to pay for out of your own pocket.” 

She says placement has taken a toll on her emotional and mental wellbeing.

“Having to work right after placement. I am doing long days for free, I am exhausted, I barely see my family or my friends. It is just really draining and really hard. 

“My relationships really suffered throughout my placement and it really took a toll on my mental health. It has been hard to spend time with my family and partner.”

A recent publication in Social Work Education – The International Journal outlined how the cost of living, rising inflation and spiking interest rates were defining issues in the 2022 federal election with students unable to afford nutritious meals, petrol or internet and many defaulting on their finances. 

As a result, it found students are prioritising paid work over their studies. This is having a detrimental impact on their academic learning, engagement and achievement. 

“Financial hardship also adversely impacts students’ mental health, their relationships with family and friends, and their ability to parent with many students indicating that they feel burnt out before they graduate.” says Dr Lisa Hodge. 

She says financial hardship is compromising learning performance and even leaving some students unable to afford degrees. 

“Rising costs of living have just exacerbated this issue of student poverty.”

“Students can no longer afford to study degrees with lengthy unpaid placements, and this is impacting what already is a health workforce in crisis.”

These concerns are leaving students to choose between their education, survival and personal wellbeing. 

Nadia Tricoli, who is 20 and from Yokine, is an enrolled nursing student at North Metropolitan TAFE.

Nadia Tricoli is in her final year of her enrolled nursing TAFE course. Photo: Rebeka Petroska.

She is currently on a full-time, four week work placement.

“As a result of prac, I have had to take time away from my job and haven’t received an income in over a month.” 

Tricoli says to prevent burnout, many organisations advise students to stop working during placements and rely on savings.  

“We are expected to work unpaid for months, yet still pay for bills, petrol, parking and the cost of amenities during this time,” she says.

“For me this has meant relying on any savings that I have but it is becoming near impossible.

“It is so draining at the moment. It just feels like a never ending battle.” 

Tricoli shares her mental and emotional struggles while on placement. Video: Rebeka Petroska.

Dr Hodge says she would like to see a number of changes in place to support students going on placement. 

“I would like to see a reduction in the number of hours for placement, payment while on placement and reduced fees for placement units.

“We need to call on increased resources for staff and students, including transport, childcare, and basic needs.”

She says more flexibility around how placements are undertaken is necessary to relieve the current impacts students are facing. 

“There needs to be more part time or flexible options or even paid placements and financial support available.” 

Western Australian government former chief nursing and midwifery officer Phillip Della told the ABC recently that the state was becoming increasingly unattractive for students to stay and work.

He says the NSW government has recently introduced grants of up to $1000 for clinical placements while the Victorian government is offering undergraduate nursing students employment.

“The reality is if we don’t invest in the students, we’re not going to get a workforce,” says Mr Della.

Nadia Tricoli says more financial support during placement will allow students to increase learning productivity. 

“It will relieve some of the stress we face while on placement and in turn allows us to be able to immerse ourselves even more.”