On October 16th, 2023, I interviewed Memorial University nursing students Brooke Simms and Kaitlyn Ghaney on their petition for fair compensation for clinical placements. We discussed why they started the petition, the response so far, the arguments of critics, and the fiscal situation of the province and university. See the interview below:
Why did you start the petition?
Brooke: When I accepted the position of Nursing Students Representative last fall, one of my big goals was to speak up about the importance of fair compensation for nursing students’ clinical placements. Since the beginning of my degree in 2020, I have heard many student complaints about the financial struggle these unpaid clinicals present to them; it was very clear that somebody had to take action on this matter if we wanted to increase the retention of nursing students. That idea got temporarily flipped on its head with the faculty strike last winter, but as it turns out, I was not the only one with this concern! At the beginning of the summer, I was approached by Jawad Chowdhury (the MUNSU Director of Campaigns) regarding the possibility of a petition in collaboration with CNSA and CNS, and then the meetings began. And here we are!
Kaitlyn: Myself, Tara Dalton, and Jessica Gulliver started this petition as a part of our role in advocating for student needs with the Canadian Nursing Students Association. I’ve been in the Official Delegate role for a year, and I was an Associate Delegate the year before that, so I have come to accumulate a lot of knowledge and experience in advocating for the needs of our student body. The common issue we hear all the time is about compensation for our clinical hours, and this initiative is something our team has been working on for the better part of the year. After other faculties saw success in obtaining a reduction in fees and an adjustment to their work term compensation, we all saw a chance to really get what started as a passion project off the ground. We reached out to MUNSU, and they helped us piece together the collaborative team we have now!
We work one of the highest amount of hours in unpaid work terms in all of MUN and some of the highest nursing clinical hours in the country. All nursing students give a piece of themselves every day at clinical – emotionally and physically – because it’s what we love to do. However, many students feel at a disadvantage without being paid for this labour. Students are a valuable aspect of the care team, especially as we progress in our education, and it’s time we recognize that and start treating all learners equally.
What has the response been so far?
Brooke: So far, the response from my peers has been exceptionally positive, and the faculties at both sites seem largely in agreement on the matter. I am currently in a placement off-campus, so petitioning on-site has been difficult. But I’ve been working with plenty of people from the Faculty of Nursing’s Student Society to help with distribution and education. The petition is ongoing, and the response may increase with more publicity.
Kaitlyn: The response has been great at the Centre. We have seen overwhelming support not just from students but from faculty as well. We’re still distributing it and hoping to see even more signatures as time goes on, and with the amount of positive feedback we have received, we’re feeling very optimistic about making a real change.
Some argue that completing clinical placements is part of the education and students learn in ways they wouldn’t in a classroom. It is also argued that students are paying for the experience that will lead to employment post-graduation. What are your thoughts on those arguments?
Brooke: I believe that these arguments express valid concerns, but I implore people to consider how educational field placements are managed in other faculties. Engineering students are compensated for their time in these positions, even though these are considered “learning” placements. Students in business and trades also receive pay for these hours. Nursing students not only perform many duties on the hospital floor for free, but they also pay for their course, transportation, and parking. This does not include the time they have to sacrifice from their paying jobs to participate in these mandatory placements. Many students feel the need to take higher-paying travel nurse jobs to pay off the loans they must take during these placements, further depleting our province’s supply of new field nurses.
While nursing students do not perform full nursing duties right away, they begin by performing what is a part of the scope of a personal care attendant (washing, feeding, dressing patients) from their very first clinical, and the independent skills build from there. As such, one would think it is only fair for them to be compensated for these duties they perform.
Kaitlyn: I think that, of course, hands-on education is extremely valuable as we enter our practice as registered nurses. As Brooke has said, there are only a handful of other faculties that are expected to go unpaid for their work (while also paying to do that work!), and those are mostly female-dominated sectors. I don’t think that this is a question of the value of our experience to our educational development, but rather a clear statement of how we view the helping professions as a society. As student nurses, we don’t know it all, but neither do HKR, engineering, or business students. They get paid – as they should – and so should we.
With the current fiscal situation of the province and university, would a pragmatic step towards fair compensation be satisfactory? For example, a stipend per semester?
Brooke: Bursaries are offered to nursing students at this time, but they are very meagre in amount. My last bursary offered me $750 for 240 hours of placement on an emergency unit. Subtracting my course fee of $533, that is equivalent to less than a dollar an hour. Can you imagine living off of 90 cents a day in Newfoundland? These clinical placements may be done in conjunction with courses (for example, once a week) or on a “regular” nursing schedule (80 hours every two weeks). Either way, there is very little time left for students to work and earn any sort of living wage during clinical placements, leading them to require student loans and burn out long before they enter the field as a registered nurse.
Kaitlyn: Bursaries and stipends are great in theory – however, when you’re also paying/taking out loans to work these hours/take additional classes that are required for the degree, they don’t really compensate students for the hours worked. Of course, any bit is appreciated, especially when you’re coming from not being paid at all, but what we’re after is fair compensation for our work, and we don’t see stipends as the best solution.
Is there anything else you would like to add or that you would like students to know?
Brooke: I want students to know that this petition is significant not only for us but for future students and the profession of nursing as a whole. It’s just the right thing to do, and I’m so proud of all the support and energy we, as a student body, have given this cause.
Kaitlyn: I want students to know this is a fight worth participating in. We are skilled individuals as students, and we are a critical piece of the healthcare system and the care of patients. We deserve to be supported in our education just like other faculties. Students work SO hard for their skills, marks, and professional development, and compensation is far past overdue.
Matt Barter is a fourth-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.