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Research finds social work placements not sustainable for Australian students

CDU Social Work researcher Dr Lisa Hodge and her team find that lengthy social work placements create financial and psychological stress for students.

Australian social work students in regional and remote locations who undertake unpaid university placements are likely to suffer from financial stress and poor mental health outcomes, according to researchers at Charles Darwin University (CDU). 

New research conducted by a team of social work researchers at CDU is analysing the impacts of compulsory lengthy, unpaid placement on low socio-economic, rural or remote and First Nations students.

Senior Lecturer in Social Work Dr Lisa Hodge and her team found that students who experience financial hardship, such as loss of pay, employment and stable accommodation as a result of lengthy and unpaid placements, are likely to experience negative mental health and wellbeing.

Dr Hodge and her team surveyed 372 students from four major universities across Australia, including Victoria University, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Southern Cross University and the University of South Australia to collect data about social work students’ experience with placements and how it has impacted their studies and life.

As part of the social worker accreditation process, which is governed by the Australian Association of Social Workers, social work students in Australia are required to undertake two 500-hour unpaid placements at an approved setting to become accredited before they can qualify as social workers in Australia.

But Dr Hodge’s study has shown that these placements could often be a financial and psychological burden for students.

“Social work students are predominately women, who might be parents, carers and sometimes people from low socio-economic backgrounds. So, having these unpaid placements could also heighten the disadvantage for women,” Dr Hodge said.

“The drop-out rate among many rural and remote social work students is increased due to the burden of unpaid placements and their associated effects. So, we wanted to investigate the impact of placement on that and hear about their experiences.”

Dr Hodge has previously surveyed research about the financial and mental health stress of having 500-hour unpaid placements among university students at Victoria University.

“We need to rethink the current model to increase flexibility. The aim is to provide empirical evidence to the accreditation body towards developing a new placement model that is both inclusive and sustainable,” she said.

“Some students could even experience homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and relationship breakdowns as a result.”

Dr Hodge and her team plan to extend the study to CDU and the University of Tasmania (UTAS) and focus on rural or remote and First Nations students.

The current research is in conjunction with QUT, the University of South Australia and UTAS.

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