Union members on strike
Social work students are struggling to finish their degrees due to financial stress. Image by Flavio Brancaleone/AAP PHOTOS
  • education

Students face poverty from course they ‘do for love’

March 27, 2024

Skipped meals, housing insecurities and potential unemployment are some of the things social workers face when undertaking student placement.

One in five social work undergraduates are withdrawing from study due to financial stress, according to research commissioned by the Australian Council of Heads of Social Work Education (ACHSWE).

The Per Capita Report reveals students face one thousand hours of placements, or the equivalent of six months’ full-time work, without pay.

A group of students, academics and union representatives visited Parliament House on Wednesday to address the issues social work students face from unpaid placements.

As head of the Students Against Placement Poverty group, university student Isaac Wattenberg often hears stories of financial stress and cries for help.

“We have overwhelming evidence that this policy is directly causing poverty,” he said.

“We have a lot of single mothers who come up to us and they’re not able to finish their degree because it comes down to feeding their kid or finishing their placement.”

The vast majority of social work students are women, and the average age is 30 – alluding to more responsibilities and stretched out budgets.

“We need urgent relief – now,” Mr Wattenberg said.

Per Capita executive director Emma Dawson is calling on the Labor government to support another 10,000 social workers around the country over the next two years.

With only about 1500 students completing their studies each year, Ms Dawson said the completion rate must be tripled in order to meet the “demands of our communities for social work across the nation”.

Ms Dawson is concerned by the lack of fairness in unpaid work when apprentices in other fields such as engineering and electrical are paid at the minimum wage.

“They’re actually serving people in their community, just as apprentice engineers help build tunnels and electricians help install solar panels,” she said.

While some students might accept the hours they “do for love”, Ms Dawson said, they “shouldn’t be penalised for doing the kind of work that’s so desperately needed”.

Australian Services Union Secretary Angus MacFarlane said the reason only 50 per cent of social workers complete their course is because they cannot afford to continue.

“We believe there’s a lot of momentum in what the students are calling for but we do need action and we need it now,” he said.

Ms Dawson said research recommended the government stipend be paid in the first instance to employer-hosts as this was the most equitable, inclusive, effective and legislatively simple of the examined models.