On November 19th, a joint panel discussion titled ‘Supporting students on Placement’ was held by UCDSU and Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU).
Taking place over Zoom, there were seventy participants. The issue of fair pay for healthcare students on placement was discussed, and what should be done to force the government to reintroduce remuneration for nursing students.
Speakers included Richard Boyd Barrett, TD for Dún Laoghaire and member of Solidarity - People Before Profit (PBP), Melissa Plunkett, midwifery student, former SU Welfare Officer, and Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) Student Representative on the Executive Council, TCDSU Education Officer Megan O’Connor, and Meadhbh Bert Flynn, fourth-year General Nursing student in UCD. The panel was chaired by UCDSU Welfare Officer Ruáirí Power and UCDSU C&E Officer Leighton Gray.
Boyd Barrett began by expressing his disgust that pay, which had been promised to nursing students during the first wave of the pandemic, will not be available to students on beginning placements now, saying that it was “outrageous that pay has been withdrawn by the government”. He highlighted that PBP had always campaigned against the notion of university fees and now, not only are these students not being paid for working on the frontline, but “you’re paying for the privilege to do this”.
Plunkett echoed the statements of Boyd Barrett by saying she was paying for the privilege to prop-up the health service. Plunket felt that the public was not aware of the plight of student nurses and midwives and expressed her ‘infuriation’ that Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly called the placements educational. According to Plunkett, the workplaces students are in are already “chronically under-staffed, unsafe environments” and educational needs cannot be met as students are forced to just pitch in.
TCDSU Education Officer O’Connor spoke of the dichotomy between the national applause for frontline staff and healthcare students dropping out of courses as they could not afford to continue in university; “they are being forced out of their education”. Many students were forbidden from having other jobs while on clinical placements due to the increased risk of infection.
Bert Flynn spoke of her personal experience, having contracted Covid-19 while on placement in a Covid-19 ward for free. She called for fair pay for internships, which currently earn less money than retail or service jobs, in which students “have peoples’ lives in their hands”. Bert Flynn expressed her desire to stay in Ireland and that she has “really good experiences” working, however, pay and conditions mean that no-one can stay; “I feel disheartened starting”.
Plunkett emphasised that the system was chronically under-staffed before the Coronavirus pandemic and that Covid-19 only served to highlight this. More is expected of an intern and yet they are paid less than a Health Care Assistant.“It comes down to safe staffing levels needed for patients’ care”, Plunkett argued that it wasn’t just the government “not caring for student midwives and nurses, but also the patients”.
Concluding the discussion, UCDSU asked what would be the most effective way to campaign to have this issue addressed. Plunkett said the reality of what student midwives and nurses face is only conveyed by putting a face to the ordeal. Bert Flynn cited her use of Twitter and emphasised the importance of emailing TDs. O’Connor felt information campaigns are the most powerful tool, explaining “People won’t care if they don’t understand”. Boyd Barrett said “it can be a very frustrating place, the Dáil, at times” and commended Bert Flynn’s efforts in sending emails, saying “the strength is always in the grass roots”. “We need you - don’t leave. Let’s take this opportunity to transform the health service and society” was the final statement of the evening, by Boyd Barrett.