‘Derail my dreams’: Horror HECS issue as students rack up $101k debt

Pheobe Ho came out of university with a staggering $99,000 in HECS debt and was stressed to breaking point – despite studying to work in a field that has a critical shortage of staff as the mental health crisis rages across Australia.

She was lucky enough to even get a place on a Postgraduate Masters in Clinical Psychology at the University of WA, which explains why many universities only offer an average of six to twelve places a year across the country.

A lack of government funding means that university places are very limited – thousands of students are missing each year – which is exacerbating the shortage of clinical psychologists.

The Australian Psychological Society has highlighted the government’s failure to fund university studies, a problem that has been going on for many years.

Last year, the federal and state governments agreed Australia was meeting only 35 per cent of its psychology workforce target – revealing dire need – but nothing was being done to address the issue, Australian Psychological Society president Dr. Catriona Davis-McCabe.

“Every year we have thousands of potential psychologists who are unable to complete their degree due to a lack of public funding for additional university places,” she said.

“It is unbelievable that the Federal Government will decide to continue with this situation in the May Budget instead of giving Australians as many psychologists as they have said they need.

“We regularly hear from desperate psychology students who don’t know what to do with their lives because they couldn’t enroll in the last two years of study due to a lack of places.”

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Despite the government’s claims that it is investing $55.8 million in universities to create additional postgraduate psychology places, only one Commonwealth-supported place per institution is required each year.

However, the psychology workforce currently stands at around 40,000, with investment not helping to increase the workforce to the 115,000 psychologist needs.

Ms Ho had a huge debt of $64,000 to complete her postgraduate studies, while the Commonwealth-supported place would have made a dramatic difference if it had cost just $8,800.

She described the course as “really challenging” and much harder than working full-time.

They were required to complete a minimum of 1,000 unpaid work hours over two years while juggling a course, writing a research thesis and trying to support themselves financially.

“The outdoor practical unit alone cost us $14,000 in HECS. At one point, I remembered working 30 hours a week on top of my full-time studies to pay for the daily necessities when I embarked on clinical training,” she told news.com.au.

“The number of hours we did was incredibly challenging. There was one student in my group who worked from 4:00 am to 1:00 pm before coming to the clinic to see clients, as well as doing lectures, studying and exams.

“Many of us have had little sleep and have been pushed beyond our limits.”

The clinical psychologist is concerned about what she sees happening in the industry, particularly as there is a critical shortage of staff in the sector.

She said while the work was incredibly rewarding, clinical psychologists were “exhausted and doing their best to meet the growing mental health needs in Australia”.

“It is difficult to do our work as psychologists when many are also experiencing a high level of burnout and stress,” she added.

News.com.au understands more than 100 postgraduate psychology courses have been closed in the past 10 years due to a lack of university funding from the Federal Government.

This represents more than half of all postgraduate psychology courses in Australia during this period.

“Collected in affluent inner suburbs”

For students who are lucky enough to enroll in graduate school, the cost of completing their studies is enormous, added Dr. Davis-McCabe, President of the Australian Psychological Society.

“Many have to complete hundreds, sometimes more than 1,000 hours of unpaid internships. How can students be expected to live, let alone complete their degree under such financial pressure?” she asked.

“Current government policy means that the future psychological workforce will be smaller, less diverse and crammed into affluent urban suburbs away from the people who need these services most.”

Keep the conversation going – sarah.sharples@news.com.au

She called for HECS debt relief and higher regional Medicare rebates to ensure more psychologists work in communities that need them most.

Ms Ho agrees that postgraduate psychology has become so competitive and expensive that it has become “increasingly unaffordable and unfair to become a psychologist, with huge financial and mental health and wellbeing costs”.

She joins a growing chorus of voices calling for more government-backed postgraduate psychology places after some of her colleagues revealed HECS debts of $120,000 and $130,000.

“Ensuring that all postgraduate psychology places are supported by the Commonwealth would help reduce the ongoing financial burden of astronomical HECS debts. It affects things like buying a house because your ability to borrow is drastically reduced because of HECS,” she said.

“Between the cost of living crisis and professional fees in the thousands on top, it’s hard to pay the bill in the current economy.”

Ethan Luxton is another University of Western Australia student who racked up $101,000 in HECS debt to train as a clinical psychologist.

“If I try to buy a house it will affect my ability to borrow, it will be over a decade of significantly reduced income in terms of pocket money as it is taken towards my HECS debt for many years,” he said.

“I don’t regret it, but I think it would be good if it came down a bit and there were more places supported by the Commonwealth, because the difference in fees is astronomical.”

When he wanted to do his postgraduate studies, he applied to 21 universities across Australia.

He was actually offered a position in Melbourne supported by the Commonwealth, but had to turn it down because he would be under financial pressure without being able to live at home rent-free.

A clinical psychologist registrar has said he is “frustrated” by the lack of action to boost the critical workforce.

“With psychology, you can’t throw money at it and one year later you’ve doubled the workforce because of the strict registration requirements and there’s a six-year minimum to become a registered psychologist,” he said.

“So this kind of thing needs to be changed now so that we can benefit in a few years.”

‘Derail My Dreams’

Psychology student Tina Psaltis has launched a petition calling on the government to save the future of psychology in Australia.

The 24-year-old said hundreds of Australian students are turned down from postgraduate psychology courses each year despite the high demand for psychologists.

The University of Technology Sydney student is in her fourth year and is “very concerned” about whether she will be able to complete a postgraduate degree in psychology with very limited places at Commonwealth-supported universities.

“I definitely think it could derail my dream,” she told news.com.au.

She said there was a clear lack of government support at a time when one in three psychologists had to close their books to new clients following the pandemic.

“The consequence of this chronic underfunding of postgraduate psychology is that undergraduates are forced to compete for the extremely limited places available on such courses, which often only offer a handful of places, to register as psychologists,” she said.

“These are exactly the courses that are needed to increase the number of practitioners in this field.

Similar to medicine, a master’s degree in psychology is expensive to provide because of the low student-to-staff ratio and the high costs of supervision and internships.”

In addition, Ms Psaltis already has a HECS debt of almost $50,000.

“I know HECS is normal, but it’s scary to think that I haven’t finished all my studies and I’m already so deep in debt,” she added.

Postgraduate psychology training is currently funded at a lower level than other health professions, with the Commonwealth contributing $13,000 per student, compared with more than $27,000 for degrees such as veterinary medicine and agriculture, she noted.

The decision to leave psychology students and university placements unfunded and underfunded also flies in the face of the government’s Women’s Economy Taskforce, as 80 per cent of psychologists are women.

“Encouraging Universities”

A Department of Education spokesperson said the Australian Government recognizes there are barriers to studying mental health, including the field of psychology, and the associated impact on workforce availability and service delivery.

“The Government is investing $91.3 million to immediately address acute bottlenecks in the psychology training pipeline as announced in Budget 2023-24,” they said.

“This includes encouraging universities to create 500 additional postgraduate psychology places, including a mandatory requirement to create new Commonwealth-supported places.”

When news.com.au pressed the government on how the university incentives would work, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Aged Care said the Australian government was making $55.8 million available to higher education providers who created the extra places. for graduate studies in psychology.

“To be eligible for funding, higher education providers must create at least one new Commonwealth Supported Place (CSP) each year and demonstrate a minimum annual growth rate of 8.7% in student enrollments on relevant postgraduate psychology courses,” they explained .

“Funding will be provided for four years from 2023 to 2024, with a separate grant round each year. All eligible higher education providers will be required to submit a new application showing the additional CSP and appropriate growth rate to receive funding from each individual grant round.”

Dr Davis-McCabe said any investment in the domestic psychological workforce was welcome, but the $91 million allocated in the 23/24 budget was just a small step in the right direction.

“With the federal government only meeting 35 per cent of its own psychology workforce target, 500 extra postgraduate places barely moves the needle on Australia’s 70,000 psychologist shortage,” she said.

“Thousands of potential psychologists cannot enter the workforce due to a lack of public funding at universities. Increasing investment in more university facilities will immediately boost psychological services in the community.”

Psychology students and taxpayers deserve to know how university internship funding is used to ensure transparency and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, she added.

sarah.sharples@news.com.au

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