Nursing students at Melbourne’s Victoria University say they are struggling to make ends meet as they complete up to 12-week blocks of unpaid placements in order to graduate.
- Victoria University nursing students say unpaid placement requirements are putting them under strain
- Students say they have to undertake placements back-to-back, which affects their ability to complete paid work
- Victoria University says placements are required for most health-related degrees
Third-year Bachelor of Nursing student Gia (not her real name) said she knew her degree in healthcare would come with late nights and shift work when she signed up.
But she did not expect she would struggle to support herself through her studies.
Gia told ABC Radio Melbourne she, like many other students, was not able to undertake her first work placement until her final year of study because of COVID restrictions during 2020 and 2021.
As part of the Victoria University Bachelor of Nursing degree, students would normally do five 160-hour unpaid placements, each usually consisting of a four-week block, spread across the three-year course.
This is a model most universities use for students undertaking healthcare courses, and enables students to budget so they can prepare for each short block of unpaid work.
However, due to pandemic restrictions, especially in Victoria, that only permitted hospital access to essential staff and patients for much of the past two years, many students have had to wait until this year to fulfil the work placement hours required to complete their degrees.
Gia said she was now trying to complete 500 unpaid hours before the end of the year, but did not think that would be possible, and feared her graduation may be delayed until next year.
However, she said she was one of the lucky ones.
“I only have eight weeks back-to-back allocated,” Gia said.
The student said she would normally be able to earn about $1,200 a fortnight while studying, but had turned down paid work to complete the placement shifts, which could stretch to 10 hours.
“I had to almost work two weeks back-to-back over three jobs just to try and scrape together enough money to last at least six to seven weeks,” Gia said.
“If I do [work] I push myself further and further into burnout.”
That feeling was echoed by the nurses she learned from.
“They’re having these discussions on the ward about being burnt out and what they’re going to do about people leaving the profession,” she said.
Gia said it had taken a toll on her passion for the profession.
Depending on partners for support
Fellow Victoria University nursing student Tamika Wood said she resigned from her job as a swim teacher about a month ago after her placement made it too impractical for her to pick up shifts.
“I have my partner who’s going to be supporting me until I get another job that will accommodate me going on placement,” Ms Wood said.
Ms Wood said living with her mum also eased some of her cost-of-living pressures, but money was not her only concern.
“A lot of us are struggling at the moment, mentally and financially and also physically, doing the placements,” she said.
“I had to take a whole week off [my placement] because my body wasn’t recovering, that was because I was trying to work and do placement at the same time.”
Ms Wood said the experience had left her reluctant to enter the industry.
“I’m completing it because I want to know I can do it.”
Opting for online learning
Fellow student Chelsea Jansen said the COVID restrictions meant she, too, could not undertake her first placement until she was in her third year of the Bachelor of Nursing degree at Victoria University.
“I have only one placement left … but a lot of us students haven’t received any nursing placements.”
Ms Jansen said she did two months on the university site and then the course went into pandemic lockdown.
“Probably about 95 per cent of my university degree has been online from home,” she said.
It is unknown how many nursing students who were due to graduate in 2020 and 2021 are still trying to make up their unpaid placement hours in order to graduate.
‘Part of regular training’, uni says
Victoria University college of health and biomedicine dean Karen Dodd said the university recognised condensed placements were “not ideal”.
“We’ve just been through, and continue to go through, the COVID situation, which has impacted upon placement ability,” Professor Dodd said.
She said as the placements formed part of the students’ qualification requirements, payment was not an option.
“This is part of the regular training of a nurse, or perhaps most health professionals in Australia,” she said.
“Depending on where the student is in their course, they add, or not, to that workforce.”
Hospitals did not pay students during placements because they were already paying qualified nurses to shadow the students.
In most cases, universities paid the hospitals to take on the students.
Professor Dodd said the university was encouraging nursing students concerned about loss of income while on placement to reach out.