Jobs the big issue for new grads
The nursing sector welcomes proposals to reduce higher education fees for nursing students, but the real issue is the lack of quality graduate positions.
As a final year nursing student at Charles Sturt University, Kate Lawrence won’t be eligible for a 50 per cent reduction in nursing fees, part of the recent higher education reforms the federal government claims will encourage students to study job-oriented degrees.
She told The Lamp that while a fee reduction “would have been lovely, I don’t think the fees are what deters people”.
Kate says the biggest concern for graduating nursing students is finding practical placements during your degree, juggling paid work, and transitioning to a quality job at the end of your degree.
The federal government has proposed reforms to the tertiary sector, which lower the cost of nursing and many STEM degrees (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) while increasing fees for social science and humanities degrees.
Professor Tracey Moroney, Chair of the Council of Deans of Nursing and Midwifery, said these changes were announced without consultation with the nursing profession, and without any consideration of workforce data.
“While there are shortfalls in some parts of the practice environment, such as mental health and regional nursing, there is no evidence of a shortfall in nursing graduates across the board. We actually have an oversupply of graduate nurses. We have to look at the opportunities to get our graduates into practice.
“We are pleased that the govern-ment is talking about nursing students, but it is time that the government started talking about us as a profession,” Professor Moroney said.
She said investments were needed to ensure that nursing students can move speedily into graduate positions and “consolidate theoretical knowledge to practice”.
Changes create a shortfall for unis
Professor Moroney is also concerned that the proposal will see universities struggling to maintain the highest teaching standards and learning environments.
Universities currently receive $21,929 per year for each nursing student, made up of a Commonwealth contribution of $15,125 and a student contribution of $6804.
Under the new Job-ready Graduates Package, student fees drop to $3700 per year but Commonwealth contributions only increase by $1375, leaving universities with a shortfall $1729 less per student.
Professor Moroney said nursing deans are already stretched running laboratories and budgeting for items such as IV fluids and equipment for environments that mirror “small hospitals”. Universities also need to cover 800 hours of clinical placements, which can cost up to $150 per student, per day.
“Getting less money per student will place additional pressure on us,” she said.
Annie Butler, federal secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, agrees. She says government investment needs to be directed to creating quality placements and long-term employment.
“We don’t have any problem with people wanting to get into the courses. We continue to see an increase in graduates every year.
The big issue is that we need to get them into secure, meaningful employment,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. Bruce Chapman, the architect of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme for the Hawke government, now an Australian National University economist, has criticised the government’s proposal, saying that changing course fee structures will do little to change student demand.
Chapman said students made “study choices based on their interests and earning potential”. His system of deferring payment through HECS loans was always designed to blunt the impact of course fees on student course decisions.
The fee changes will commence from 2021 if the legislation passes parliament. While current students in courses where fees are set to increase will have their current fees grandfathered, in courses such as nursing, the fee reductions will apply immediately to existing students.
Fierce competition for graduate positions
Third year nursing student Kate Lawrence’s biggest concerns as a nursing student has been securing placements to cover the compulsory 800 hours of practical experience, and then finding a graduate position when she completes her degree.
“When we come out there are only a certain number of graduate positions available, and they are very competitive. You can put eight preferences in your application, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will get one of those.”
“I applied to Tamworth, thinking it might be the only placement I’d get.”
She added that the current COVID-19 pandemic is adding to student anxiety.
“A lot of people are having their placements cancelled. But if you don’t get a placement, you don’t graduate.”
Kate says that the compulsory weeks of placements while studying can also play havoc with students’ ability to maintain paid work.
“Sometime students get an email on a Friday to start a placement five hours away. They have to work out accommodation, and negotiate time off paid work if they are employed, making it hard to earn income while studying.”