‘Heartbreaking’: Students plunged into poverty

Psychology students often leave universities with HECS debts of over $100,000, but are also relegated to “poverty” housing during their studies.

Pheobe Ho left university with a staggering $99,000 in HECS debt after completing a postgraduate degree in clinical psychology at a Western Australian university.

She said they would have to complete at least 1,000 unpaid internships over the course of two years, as well as completing coursework and writing a research paper while trying to stay financially afloat.

However, the government’s announcement of $319.50 per week teaching, nursing, social work and midwifery courses did not include postgraduate psychology courses, which was another “bitter blow,” Ho said.

“We do at least 1,000 unpaid internship hours in addition to our final thesis, coursework and assessments/exams, which is an unbearable workload,” she said.

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She said the paid internship would be a tremendous help to graduate psychology students and also to training the next generation of psychologists.

“Including postgraduate psychology in the Commonwealth practical payment would mean many more people would have the opportunity to study postgraduate psychology. Given the current mental health crisis, we need to do more to support the training of our future psychologists,” she said.

“It is heartbreaking to hear that many students are reconsidering their decision to continue studying psychology because they are worried about the cost of the course. This includes both how they will make ends meet during the course and how much their HECS debt will be.”

Ethan Luxton is another Western Australian university student who accumulated $101,000 in HECS debt to train as a clinical psychologist.

He said that the $300 payment going to the other courses was “extremely valuable,” but psychology had been neglected.

He had to turn down a Commonwealth-funded place to study postgraduate clinical psychology in Melbourne – which would have significantly reduced his HECS debt – because he could not afford to live away from home and complete the unpaid training.

The Perth resident said psychology students study graduate courses, do internships and often try to work part-time, meaning they don’t get a break – they work seven days a week.

“I do not think the cost of such a payment to psychology students would result in such a large additional burden on the government,” he added.

“Every little bit would help – one less day a week that they had to work would mean extra time in which they could look after their own mental health, do classes, exercises and assignments, and spend time with family and friends and socialise, which is hugely important.”

The Australian Association of Psychologists (AAP) said it was disappointing that psychology students had been ignored in the federal government’s paid internship program as there is a significant shortage of psychologists and exclusion from the program will exacerbate that shortage.

Tegan Carrison, executive director of the AAP, said internships provide valuable clinical experience for students, but they are disadvantaged because they are unpaid.

“Psychology students can undertake up to 1,000 hours of unpaid work on their placements, pushing them into placement poverty, impacting their mental health and wellbeing, and preventing many from low socio-economic backgrounds from pursuing higher education,” she said.

“Given the need for mental health professionals that must be rapidly scaled up to adequately serve the nation’s mental health needs – psychologists meet only 35 percent of the federal government’s workforce target – we call for the urgent inclusion of psychology students in this program.

“As future health professionals, they should be given equal consideration.”

Psychology student Tina Psaltis, currently in her fourth year at the University of Technology in Sydney, has started a petition calling on the government to save the future of psychology in Australia.

She is faced with the enormous task of finding a place to study clinical psychology and surviving.

“It was disappointing to hear that psychology students are not eligible for the internship payments, particularly as the workload of the psychology master’s and internship plus coursework plus research makes it very difficult – almost impossible – for students to hold down a part-time job on the side,” she said.

“This also discourages many people from pursuing a career as a psychologist.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Education said the government was aware of the challenge many students faced in covering living costs while studying and completing compulsory internships.

“Although there are other courses that require internships, the White Paper on Employment highlighted teaching and care occupations as key drivers of the economy,” it said.

“The Australian Universities Accord also recommends that the Government work with higher education providers, state and territory governments, industry, business and unions to consider further support from employers (public and private) to mitigate the risk of financial hardship and place poverty for students in other degree programs.”

Alarm bells

Meanwhile, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) is raising the alarm about the government’s failure to fund postgraduate training in clinical psychology – a problem that has been simmering for years.

Last year, federal and state governments agreed that Australia was only meeting 35 per cent of its psychology workforce target, highlighting the enormous need, yet nothing was done to address the problem.

Contrary to government claims, $55.8 million will be invested in universities to create additional places for postgraduate psychology courses, but only one government-funded place is needed per institution per year.

However, there are currently only about 40,000 psychologists working in the field of psychology and investments barely contribute to meeting the demand for 115,000 psychologists.

The government announced that an additional 500 one-year internships will be offered to probationary psychologists and 2,000 training places for supervisors will be fully subsidised. This includes 1,000 refresher places to ensure probationary psychologists are supported during their internship, a Department of Education spokesperson said.

“This significant investment will help address pressing issues as the government works to redesign higher education in psychology,” they added.

“The redesign will be developed in collaboration with the sector and led by the Psychology Board of Australia to support longer-term reforms.

“The redesign will consider ways to streamline psychology education, place an emphasis on hands-on learning, and address challenges in access and equity to help more students complete their degrees and qualify for professional licensure.”

New position as psychology assistant

The government has also provided funding to explore the possibility of a psychology assistant position in the Australian mental health system, the spokesman noted.

“The psychology assistant role is an innovative model that exists internationally to provide early intervention services,” they said.

“The funding will support consultation with psychology and the wider health sector and includes consideration of the scope of practice, regulatory requirements and training routes for the role of a psychology assistant.

While Dr Davis-McCab said she welcomed the government’s commitment to expand the mental health workforce with psychological assistants, the APS does not support professional replacements.

“Our well-founded and evidence-based position is that we need more psychologists in Australia. Substantial investment in the fully registered psychologist workforce is fundamental to any reform effort,” she said.

The development of any roles for psychology assistants must be led by the professional psychologist.

sarah.sharples@news.com.au

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