Infantilised, Dismissed & Discounted

By Mai Lang

*This article was originally published in the Annual 2023 print magazine*

After years of continued, grassroots activism, the conversation around unpaid placements and the poverty elicited by them, is finally winning an audience with the federal government. As part of the Universities Accord review on higher education in Australia, open consultation has yielded a strong stance against the nature of unpaid student placements. In its interim report, the Accord – the Australian Government’s own appointed higher education review taskforce – has openly identified the current situation as untenable, and that “without change, Australia’s higher education system will rapidly become unfit for purpose”. 

Whether you call it work-integrated learning, field education, placement, or practicum, students are doing hundreds and thousands of hours of it for no remuneration, and at great personal cost.  

Whilst the conversation around unpaid placements rightfully rages, the pervasive and persistent rhetoric of students as miserly, angsty teens with bees in our bonnets is rising. Although some of us are angsty teens – whose perspectives and grievances are as valid as anyone else’s – the dismissal of students’ activism as an infantile, utopian whimsy one grows out of with age and maturity, belies an unpalatable truth… 

students are diverse 

People study at any age; each day, varying amounts of greying hair and wrinkles shuffle or Zoom into higher education classrooms across the country. The youngest tertiary students have come of age in an era of technology and pandemic stress that ageing millennials (like me) couldn’t have imagined in our dial-up, Saturday morning Rage-filled youths. Through this diversity, each of us bring vast, variable, and valuable lived experience to our learning. We offer unique, individual strengths and perspectives to the world and our disciplines, providing desperately needed innovation and growth. 

Long have students been infantilised and dismissed, discounted and patronised, to the advantage of the zeitgeist and those who benefit from it. The ability to continue to ignore the valid cries of students (and our allies) is arguably dependent upon the wider perception of who we are. In the context of placement poverty, students can remain unpaid and dismissed as long as we continue to be (mis)construed en masse as entitled children with no real responsibilities, disconnected from reality through ignorant immersion in our egocentric worlds.  

In a sharp twist of irony, the purveyors of such constructs are often those who benefited (or had the opportunity to benefit) from the abolition of student fees throughout 1974 to 1989, the era of paid placements, apprenticeships and tuition. Apprenticeships and wages associated with them continue to be incentivised and subsidised for apprentices and employers by state and federal governments, at a cost of $3.7 billion in employer assistance and incentives alone.  

Last century, society and government understood that students on placement needed to be remunerated. Paid, apprenticeship-based training models for teachers were commonplace, tuition fees were reimbursed, stipends were paid to those training in remote areas, and pensions were paid upon retirement. Across the political spectrum, politicians readily advocated for a decrease in placement hours, increased funding for education, and a reduction in textbook costs.  

Apprenticeship-based models for higher education have long since been scrapped, and the focus has in some ways shifted from attainment of professional competencies to fulfilment of minimum hours. Those of us undertaking degrees requiring placement are responsible for tuition and student contribution fees (and if you’re lucky enough to be eligible for HECS, their yearly indexation), rural and remote placement costs, uniforms, equipment, and fuel.  

We remain unpaid for our labour. 

Our discontent is the organic result of existing in the kind of society that confronted with student poverty due to unpaid labour, declares ‘you should pursue careers you can afford’ and in its next breath, bemoans the lack of nurses, teachers, and social workers et al. Our collective frustration is a typical human reaction to the atypical situation of being told to be grateful for the opportunity to undertake one thousand hours of unpaid placement, whilst simultaneously proclaiming you’re clearly not working hard enough if you can’t get approved for (or afford) the cheapest two bedroom rental in Meanjin (at the time of writing, a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom unit in Darra costs $360 per week).  

The disenfranchisement and belittling of students reverberates throughout the 21st century Barthesian myth that students’ labour isn’t real labour. Placement is frequently perceived as a one-sided transaction; a waste of supervisors’ precious time, where students are often seen as useless and burdensome. Consequently, remunerating students for their labour during learning becomes unjustifiable and unconscionable. Such constructs are harsh reminders of the neoliberal, capitalist landscape of Australia, where the value of mutual aid, lifelong learning, and critical praxis are lost to the lie that working hard means the world will look after you.  

Culturally accepted but erroneous equations of positions of power with professional omniscience, allow binary hierarchies to flourish. As such, the notion that placement provides a valuable opportunity to nurture dynamic praxis through mutual exchange of knowledge and mutual continued professional development, can easily be discarded. What impact does this unconscious incompetence and gatekeeping of learning have for practice in any profession, let alone one that requires critical praxis and meaningful, ethical engagement?  

Who benefits from the current state of affairs? 

The time for patronising and dismissing placement poverty-afflicted, desperate students is over. Neoliberalist doctrine can no longer rule the status quo, nor can it remain sanctioned in the inaccurately named Fair Work Act 2009. Students’ work on placement is work; there’s only so long we can subsist solely on the love of our professions, whilst you keep raising our rent. We shouldn’t have to go back fifty years to move forward. 

There’ll come a time when you need us. What then?

Mai Lang BA(CulSociol) GradDipCouns is a Master of Social Work student and one of the four founding members of the Queensland branch of Students Against Placement Poverty. She believes housing is a human right, education should be free, nobody should go hungry, and that skinny jeans are forever. Proudly ADHD, disabled, and reluctantly chronically ill, Mai is privileged to amplify marginalised voices in her work, honouring lived experience as a valuable resource and catalyst for systemic change. She enjoys inadvertently reciting Kath & Kim lines in everyday conversation, and Pedro Pascal dance memes. You can find Mai @theliminalsocialworker


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