A Shortfall of placements in hospitals has forced University of Newcastle nursing students to rely on prison clinics, call centres and distant destinations such as Broken Hill to clock up their training hours.
The Newcastle Herald understands the situation has become so dire the university has been forced to cancel the placements of around 60 students in May.
The university plans to reschedule them for June, a period usually reserved as a last resort for students who encounter adverse circumstances.
It's just unconscionable that the university is taking these peoples' money...and they're not getting the proper placement experience."
A number of staff members who contacted the Herald were angry they had been gagged from telling students about the problems and feared some would miss out on placement altogether.
“If you need a make-up placement then you’re just not going to get one at all,” said one staff member, who did not want to be named.
Another said she had been forced to console students who were crying after finding out their placements had been cancelled.
"It's just unconscionable that the university is taking these peoples' money and making them pay for a course and they're not getting the proper placement experience," she said.
"Some of our students are single mothers or are working and they're organising their lives to go on placement.
"We're teaching these students with a smile painted on our faces. They deserve to know the truth."
The Herald reported last July that John Hunter Hospital was set to cut back the number of students it would take on placement in 2017 due to changes in the way the program was staggered by the nursing school.
Gosford and Wyong are also key feeder hospitals for the nursing school, but it was unclear what changes – if any – had been made to their 2017 intake.
Central Coast Local Health District Executive Director of Nursing and Midwifery Lynne Bickerstaff said they had increased the number of students taken from the University of Newcastle between 2015 and 2016, but would not comment on how many were being taken this year.
“Total nursing and midwifery student placements for 2017 are currently being finalised,” she said.
With 1750 students across three campuses, the university has this year been forced to increasingly rely on placements in aged care facilties, rehabilitation facilities, GP clinics, prison clinics, home care settings, community centres and community health events.
Staff say a suggestion was floated – and shot down – that students could accumulate hours by carrying out skin checks on the beach.
They warned a lack of hospital experience was extremely damaging to students’ job prospects.
“Some of the nurses that graduate from Newcastle University are not going to get jobs because they have no acute care experience,” a staff member said.
But a university spokesperson described its placement programs as “sector-leading”.
“Nursing and midwifery graduates continue to be highly sought-after in the industry, with 96% of graduates finding employment.”
Students are also now being sent to remote locations such as Grafton, Tweed Heads and Broken Hill for their practical training, which lasts between four and five weeks.
Staff said that was not practical for those with weekend jobs or children.
“They shouldn’t have to miss five weeks of work because they’re in Broken Hill,” an academic said.
However the university spokesperson said the program was geared towards providing rural and remote regions of Australia with a highly-skilled nursing workforce.
“Nursing programs need to develop with the specific intention of providing graduates with the knowledge, skills and confidence to work in rural and remote regions,” she said.
The Newcastle University Student’s Association was scathing of the school in a statement and said it would be calling a strike on March 28 so that students could have “their voice heard.”
President Michael Labone said the issue with placements was the latest in “a long line of errors in judgement by the University of Newcastle in the way that it treats its students.”
“Placements for our nursing students need to be fair, accessible and equitable for all our students, not just a select few,” he said.
“Making students travel far out of area, cancelling their placements at the last minute and treating them with a clear lack of regard is a disgrace.”
The unrest at the nursing school has coincided with the departure of four senior academic staff to the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) within two months.
The nursing school at UTS was ranked first in the country and fourth globally in this year’s prestigious QS World University Rankings.
The University of Newcastle’s nursing school was ranked between 51 and 100.
But the university spokesperson said the school had recruited 11 new academic staff since the beginning of last year and had established “a new generation of nursing leaders.”
The school had achieved “unprecedented heights in performance” since 2014, she said, including a prestigious number five ranking by Excellence in Research Australia. During an external review - ordered following the Herald’s original article – the university had worked closely with staff to “engage their views on current operations and future directions”.