Why nursing students are dropping out

Every year thousands of nursing students graduate to begin their work placements in Australia. This comes from a pool of students with a yearly attrition rate of roughly 17 per cent, according to the AHPRA (Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency). Monash University Nursing student Tilly Kutey believes this number undersells the reality of nursing degrees in Australia.  

Student nurse Tilly Kuter. Photo: Supplied by Tilly Kutey

“I’d say almost a third of my class have dropped out already and we are only in the first semester,” Tilly said. More than the high attrition rate, nursing students have an entirely different course path to students studying most other degrees. “With Arts degrees and such, you don’t have to be in every class. They don’t take attendance and you can pick up a lot of it online, but with nursing you must be in every single class and a lot of it is very hands on. If you miss a class, you need a doctor’s note and there’s no way around that.” 

A standard Bachelor of Nursing in Australia is a three-year full-time course with a requirement that students complete more than 800 hours of unpaid placement. Moreover, there are several financial commitments aspiring nurses must undertake in order to begin placement, including, but not limited to; $200 NDIS check, $60 police check, as well as fees for multiple immunisations, blood tests and various other health checks. 

“After you’ve done all your checks and immunisations, placement essentially begins with you being assigned a buddy Senior Nurse who will watch over your placement and tick off skills as you learn them. The other thing people don’t realise about placement is that you can be placed all over the state for any periods of time and all of that financial cost is on you,” Tilly said.  

According to figures from Indeed, the average yearly salary for a registered nurse in Victoria is $76,471 before tax. For comparison, Indeed lists the average yearly salary for a Marketing Specialist at $78,146 before tax and $88,255 before tax for an Operations Manager, two popular career avenues for a Bachelor of Business graduate – similarly a three-year degree but without the hands-on commitment of placement.  

“It’s tough with placement because at the beginning you’re inexperienced so you get a lot of the more menial tasks like cleaning and washing patients and then of course the further into the degree you get the more advanced tasks you’re given,” Tilly said. “Third years can start taking blood and charts and things like that. I think this is one of the main reasons nursing degrees have such high drop-out rates, because people don’t think about the less glamorous side of nursing, and it can be a bit of a shock. On the flip side, there are a lot of students who go into it expecting everything to be hands-on and they totally underestimate just how academic it is. There’s a lot of chemistry and biology and that can turn a lot of people off who were expecting to be pulling out the test dummies every week.”  

With such bleak outlooks in the world of nursing – the abuse from patients, the long hours, the overwhelming placement hurdles, the underwhelming pay – Tilly said what motivated her to stick with the nursing degree was her keenness to help and care for people who are in need. “When people are sick, they are at their most vulnerable and they just need someone advocating for their wellbeing. That’s the sort of meaning and purpose that’s hard to come by in normal vocations. I want to contribute to society in a positive way. It’s not just all about money,” she said. 




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