It is an undeniable fact that student nurses in this country are being exploited, especially evident now, in the midst of a pandemic. However, while there have been mass calls to classify students as HSE employees in order to secure payment of wages, there has been another call among the older generation of professionals in this area for the exact opposite.

An important point to clarify from the outset is the universal understanding that student nurses deserve some form of compensation for their additional burden. The difference is in concerns that elevation to ‘employee’ status will be of huge detriment to students in the long run and that calls for compensation should not include this motion.

History of Nursing Education

The classification as a student brings with it certain benefits and protections that a whole generation of professionals have fought to secure for those who came after them. While a nursing diploma programme was introduced in 1994, it was in 1998 that the Commission on Nursing published an interim report recommending that student nurses should obtain degree-level education with full integration into third level institutions. Prior to this nurses had been qualified on an apprenticeship/education style basis. Following this report, the forum was tasked with developing the framework for a degree level nursing programme. From 2002 onwards nursing students began education in third level institutions on a degree awarded level.

Student Nurses

What did this change mean for student nurses?

This change in degree and education classification meant that student nurses were just that, students. The primary focus shifted to education and student experience. Even though students take part in clinical placements they are supernumerary, rather than considered as part of the workforce. According to professionals in the area, ‘their purpose is to gain experience rather than meet service needs.’ This offers student nurses a certain level of protection in regards shifts worked and duties undertaken, as their primary purpose is education and observation in harmony with other aspects of the degree programme.

Ongoing COVID Pandemic

With the ongoing COVID pandemic student nurses have been relied upon to fill the gaps caused by staff shortages in hospitals, placing a disproportionate burden on these students with little to no emphasis on their educational experience. At the same time these students are still required to carry on with assignments and exams, all while being fearful for the safety of themselves and their families. This has led to calls for student nurses to be considered ‘part of the workforce,’ to secure remuneration for additional work undertaken at this time.

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Problems with becoming ‘part of the workforce’

As explained by Dr. Jacqueline Burke at a Law Society panel discussion on the matter, students will lose all protections the college can offer them if they were to become part of the HSE workforce. Dr. Burke explained that the HSE will be their boss, deciding their hours and duties with no special understanding that lectures need to be attended and exams need to be sat. Loss of student status may lead to a wage but it will also lead to an increased workload with no exemptions or protections provided.

Once student status is lost it will be incredibly difficult to regain, as Dr Burke told the panel, she and colleagues had to fight for years to secure it. This pandemic won’t last forever and at some point in the future college life will return to normal. However, future student nurses will also have lost this protective student status and be vulnerable to the demands of the HSE whilst contending with assignments and exams, the college left with no way to protect them.

Student nurses deserve compensation for their work, but the answer should not be found in becoming part of the HSE workforce during college years. Instead, additional pressure should be put on the Government to provide supports in the form of financial compensation, accommodation and increased travel allowances, all while allowing students to maintain this status. It is not for current, and indeed future, student nurses to give up their student experience due to the failings of the Government, state remuneration to these students must be demanded instead.

Louise Kennedy – Law Writer