March 20, 2018

“We’re just asking to not have to pay to work for free”

Social work students at Carleton rally against practicum fees

By Stephen Cook

Master of Social Work students at Carleton University are demanding the school eliminate tuition fees for their 450-hour unpaid practicum placement. An online petition supporting the initiative currently has over 500 signees. 

The School of Social Work office at Carleton University, currently closed due to the CUPE 2424 strike. Credit: Stephen Cook
The School of Social Work office at Carleton University, currently closed due to the CUPE 2424 strike.
Credit: Stephen Cook

“We’re not even asking to be paid,” Shaelah Buckley explained to The Leveller, speaking as a Master of Social Work (MSW) student and one of the initiative’s organizers. “We’re just asking to not have to pay to work for free, which seems so outrageous that we’re even having to demand that.”

MSW students must pay a full tuition of approximately $3,500 per work term, which require students work 450 hours on top of 12 hours of class time. Students must either complete one or two work terms, depending on previous education and experience.

This stands in contrast to the university’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) co-op programs, which cost about $1,200 and are often paid.

In their press release, the students argue this disparity reflects a systemic devaluing of gendered labour. According to the 2011 National Household Survey and the Government of Canada’s Job Bank, 83 per cent of social service workers are women.

“It’s a larger structural issue and Carleton is just a body that’s reinforcing that structural issue,” said Buckley. She estimates about 85 per cent of her cohort is female.

“We’re a structural school of social work – our main focus is on systemic issues that work to further marginalize and oppress people,” said Buckley. “This is what we learn about in class and we’re experiencing it firsthand from the main sources.”

Although she could not comment directly on the MSW program, Dr. Clare Beckton of the Carleton Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership said the feminization of poverty is a well-known issue.

“What we’ve called the ‘pink ghetto’ is that the wages are often lower in those occupations than are ones that have been traditionally occupied by men,” she explained.

Beckton pointed out that the recently announced federal budget proactively combats gender pay disparity. One of the new measures is legislated pay equity in federally regulated sectors, for example, which is said to apply to an estimated 1.2 million people.

The government has also earmarked $7.8-million over five years to develop social services organizations’ funding capacity. This could mark a positive shift in the financial struggles of the social work sector in Canada.

But that may be a bridge too far for current Carleton MSW students, many of whom are struggling with debt.

“We’re going to graduate this program and get jobs that are like $30,000 a year,” said Cara Stringer, another MSW student organizer. “It’s not like we’re high-income earners or anything like that.”

“We’re working the social service sector, we’re trying to alleviate poverty and the marginalization that people experience,” she told The Leveller. “And some of us are experiencing that ourselves, it’s ridiculous.”

The students are also investigating the costs of other social work programs in Canada. In their press release, they highlight the University of Windsor’s MSW program, which has a practicum fee of $400.

Organizers are currently working with a Graduate Student Association liaison to negotiate with other concerned parties on campus. They are also demanding retroactive reimbursement for the students about to begin a summer practicum, should changes not be made immediately.

Neither the Department of Social Work nor the Faculty of Public Affairs responded to requests for comment.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2018).