The push for paid pracs

Members of SAPP hold a banner, including Co-Founder Isaac Wattenberg (third from right)

When Master of Education student Callum Ward got his first opportunity to teach in a classroom, he knew he had found what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. The 22-year-old completed his first practicum earlier this year at a school in Sydney’s inner west. The first-year student travelled almost an hour by train to get there. One day, he wasn’t sure he had enough money to cover the fare. “I had to go, OK, do I want to eat some lunch today or do I want to get to prac?”, said Ward.

It’s a choice the Macquarie University student feels he shouldn’t have to make, and he’s not alone. Ward is a member of a national grassroots student collective called Students Against Placement Poverty (SAPP), which is campaigning for university placements to be paid. The group has members across a range of degree programs including Education, Social Work and Nursing. According to Co-Founder Isaac Wattenberg, many students are struggling to complete unpaid work amid a cost-of-living crisis.

Students are skipping meals, they’re having to toss- up between paying rent and putting petrol in their car.

Callum Ward

Food or prac?

“Students are skipping meals, they’re having to toss-up between paying rent and putting petrol in their car,” said Wattenberg, who is studying social work at the University of NSW. Some students turn to university food banks to feed themselves while they are on placement. The SAPP spokesperson had to give up his part-time job when he went on placement. He says many students are forced to do the same — losing wages and jobs they rely on to support themselves. Students who continue to work while on prac face other issues.

Bachelor of Education student Meg Southcombe felt so exhausted during her first prac, that she struggled to walk the dog. The athletic 20-year-old is training to be a physical education teacher. She lights up when she talks about teaching, but going on prac took a toll. The University of Newcastle student, who is not a member of SAPP, was able to go home to Muswellbrook for her placement. During the week, Southcombe worked full-time at a school and then slept on the family couch each night. On the weekend, she drove over an hour and half back to Newcastle to work a 12-hour shift in a pub each Saturday and Sunday, before driving back again.

On the last day of her prac, one of the kids said to her: “Miss, you’ve been sick the whole time”. That’s when she realised she’d been coughing throughout her prac. “You burn yourself into the ground,” says the first-year student. Still, Southcombe considers herself one of the lucky ones as she doesn’t pay rent. If she did, she doesn’t know how she’d make it through.

Working nights

According to Wattenberg, some students need to work nights while doing their placement full-time and trying to keep up with coursework. As well as wages, SAPP wants to see a reduction in the number of hours required on placement. Wattenberg argues there’s no evidence that a greater number of hours improves educational outcomes.

For teaching students in NSW, undergraduates must complete at least 80 days of professional experience, while postgraduates need a minimum of 60 days. The requirements are set by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), but universities can choose to increase the amount. Danny Pinchas, the General Manager of Teaching and School Leadership at AITSL, emphasises that any potential changes would need to be endorsed by every education minister. Pinchas is not aware of any current plans to reduce hours.

Mental health toll

Students on prac often experience a lot of stress. According to research conducted by the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work, 80% of social work students surveyed said the financial hardship of their placement negatively affected their mental health. While similar research has not been done in the education field, SAPP hears from students across disciplines who are feeling anxious, depressed, and even suicidal. “I would say there’s a severe mental health cost,” states Wattenberg.

Southcombe is a vocal mental health advocate who believes the psychological impact on students shouldn’t be underestimated. “I know fully employed teachers are burning out”, she says, “but students are also burning out”. Southcombe argues that when students don’t have the time or money to feed themselves properly, exercise or spend time with their friends, their wellbeing suffers.

With unpaid placements posing so many challenges, some students aren’t making it to graduation. They are burning out and dropping out, fueling staff shortages in critical sectors like teaching, says Wattenberg. Ward understands why students are leaving because he considered doing so himself. He worries about the impact unpaid placements are having on the teacher shortage. “Burnout is a really serious thing and it’s terrible that we’re losing so many great or even potentially great teachers,” he said.

Bachelor of Education student and mental health advocate Meg Southcombe

Broken system

Southcombe believes that there are young people who would make wonderful teachers, but they simply don’t have the means or support to make it through. The system isn’t working she says, “I mean, something’s got to give”.

She’s not convinced that paid placements are the answer, but she’d like to see students at least receive enough to cover basic expenses. If students were paid, it would demonstrate a respect for the work of teaching, argues Southcombe, who recently went viral for talking about the need to respect the profession on ABC’s The Drum.

The idea of paid placements is gaining traction. Minister for Education Jason Clare spoke about the need to address placement poverty in an interview with ABC News. Clare told the network that paid placements are being considered as part of the Universities Accord, the most significant review of the sector for many years. Findings and recommendations will be released in the final Universities Accord report, which is due at the end of the year.

Ward hopes that the government heeds the calls of students facing placement poverty. “They’ve just got to listen,” he says. It remains to be seen whether paid placements will become a reality, but Ward hopes that SAPP’s activism will make a difference for future education students. Teaching, he says, is a noble profession. “I think we do need more teachers, but we need to support them as they’re coming through.”

Lucy Meyer