Students on placements need welfare funding, say universities

Disadvantaged students are disproportionately affected when they relinquish paid work to attend mandatory placements, lobby group argues

February 2, 2023
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Students risk going hungry to develop nationally vital skills, because they are obliged to undertake practical placements that deprive them of opportunities for paid work.

An Australian university grouping has called for students to receive extra income support while they are on placements, as part of a broader offensive against rampant cost-of-living pressures.

In its pre-budget submission, the Australian Technology Network (ATN) says courses in many professions experiencing national shortages – including teaching, nursing and clinical psychology – feature compulsory placements. Students relinquish paid shifts during these practicums and risk rendering themselves unemployable as bosses turn to staff with more availability.

“This affects disadvantaged students the most,” the submission says. “These students deserve additional support.”

ATN executive director Luke Sheehy, a former Labor policy adviser, said student income support was a difficult issue for governments because it involved multiple portfolios and even marginal changes could have “an enormous impact on the budget”. But targeted assistance for students on placement seemed relatively affordable.

“It’s a smaller response than [a] macro changing of the levers,” he said. “It’s in their policy sweet spot…to give more kids from poor backgrounds access to uni. This is just another policy consideration that could help support that cohort in particular.”

Mr Sheehy said there was anecdotal evidence that disadvantaged people were especially attracted to vocationally oriented courses that included placements, while older students were often drawn to teaching degrees.

“They’re often already established in the workplace, and it’s that financial risk that is the impediment. The [education] minister is interested in encouraging people from all walks of life to go into teaching. This might make it more attractive.”

The budget, which is expected to be handed down on 9 May, is considered unlikely to include major changes to student income support as the government contends with the lingering economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

The government has convened an Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee to advise on the adequacy of income support payments ahead of every federal budget, but the group’s recommendations are not binding. And while income support is expected to be part of the universities accord, it is not due to report before June.

While the accord’s terms of reference do not specifically mention income support, they cover affordability, access and participation by students from under-represented backgrounds. Mr Sheehy said he was “hopeful” that the accord would address income support, which he described as “unfinished business”.

“Sometimes the income support argument falls through the cracks in the broader debate,” he said. “It was incumbent upon us to make it an important point in our pre-budget submission because it’s not all about funding research and teaching. Students need a bit of consideration in tough times.

“Income inequality hits you really hard when you when you first go to university as a young person, and if we can change the policy settings to help alleviate that, that’s important.”

Mr Sheehy said that with tuition fees deferred through Australia’s system of income-contingent student loans, living costs were a primary impediment to access. “What’s on the students’ minds is how they’re going to live; how they’re going to get around.

“We’ve got to be cognisant of the unique challenges for kids from more modest backgrounds. Getting in the door is one threshold; completing is another.”

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