Unpaid placements are a bitter pill to swallow

Pharmacy students across Ireland call for compensation for their placement hours

Since 1977, the Trinity School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences has been the home of education for Pharmacy and other related subjects. In 2002 and 2003, RCSI and UCC joined the forces of providing high quality education and experience to those seeking to pursue the path of Pharmacy. The original format of the course guided students through a four year Bachelor degree and one year of placement in a place of the students choosing, before becoming registered as a Member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (MPSI). Approved in 2014, the five year integrated Master’s programme was then introduced to students in all three schools of Pharmacy in September of 2015. The work placement aspect of the course at all three colleges is currently overseen by the Affiliation for Pharmacy Practice Experiential Learning (APPEL), who in conjunction with the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI) have decided to withhold payment from Pharmacy students at all levels of the course. APPEL is the governing body that collates information on placement opportunities, and assigns placement locations for students in all three schools of Pharmacy. On top of this, the fifth year – which is when the Masters is completed – requires fees of €9,000 to complete the year. A crucial fact to note is that this final Masters year must be completed by any Pharmacy student looking to graduate and register as a pharmacist.  

“Students will be required to complete 12 months of unpaid placement with no reimbursement from any source, while still having to manage their own lives and upkeep.”

It has been continually explicitly stated that “students are not to accept any payment from their Training Institutions”. The PSI believes that they are justified in this mandate, as the relationship between the pharmacist and student will be a “teacher-learner” relationship, rather than an “employer-employee” relationship. As can be expected, Pharmacy students from all three institutions are not happy with this development and are using all avenues available to them to try and rectify this predicament. The reason why this is such an important issue to resolve is that there are many students in all three colleges that come from low-income households. These students will not be able to fund the money to complete the Masters year as many of them rely on SUSI and government funding to pay their fees. Students will be required to complete 12 months of unpaid placement with no reimbursement from any source, while still having to manage their own lives and upkeep, which would lead to “a net deficit of at least €25,000 per student by the end of fifth year”, according to TCDSU Pharmacy Convenor, Lara Moehle.

The 2018/19 academic year began with multiple talks and meetings between the heads of APPEL, the PSI, and the APPEL student representatives. There are two APPEL reps for each year in the course, who are chosen by the students in their respective years to speak on behalf of all Pharmacy students across the three colleges. These students, along with support from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), have created a campaign to show a strong, united front, the campaign is called the USI National Pharmacy Students’ Campaign. According to APPEL student rep, Enda Donnellan, a second year Trinity Pharmacy student, describes the support of the USI to be “…extremely vital in the struggle to obtain fairness for Pharmacy students across the country”. Donnellan, along with fellow second year APPEL rep Conor Sweeney, are attending these meetings with fellow reps, desperately trying to change the current reality, so that those from low-income households can afford to qualify and complete the Pharmacy degree. Sweeney says: “It is simply unfair to expect Pharmacy students to work with no source of income for that amount of time.”

“Currently all second year students that have signed and submitted the form are now legally bound to complete unpaid placement for the rest of their degrees.”

Many second year students have complaints about how the APPEL system is set up, particularly with the new information they received regarding their two week placements. The 2018/19 APPEL Placement Allocation Forms were given to current second year students with the deadline for completed form submission being only a few days after the forms were received. This led to an oversight that many students have described as “unfair” and “misleading”. Currently all second year students that have signed and submitted the form are now legally bound to complete unpaid placement for the rest of their degrees. The current fourth year students who identified the discrepancy have urged fellow students in all years of Pharmacy, not to sign any APPEL related documents “…until a deal is made with APPEL and the PSI”.

The inadequacy of the situation has garnered widespread national support from all avenues. An online petition was launched on change.org in November to rally support and inform the general public of the basis of the argument. Within days, the target of 5,000 signatures was reached with many comments from Pharmacy students, pharmacists, and the Irish community alike expressing that they want Pharmacy students to be given “…the chance to develop in their careers, without the burden of financial hindrance”. As well as this, there is very strong support coming from the respective institutions involved. For example, during a TCDSU Council in November, a motion was raised to “request the promised support from TCDSU regarding unpaid placement and increased fees for Pharmacy students”.

However with all the effective communication and external support, a unanimous resolution has yet to be decided upon. This caused the Pharmacy students of the three colleges to organise a rally, in conjunction with the USI and Irish Pharmaceutical Students Association (IPSA), to protest the injustice of the current situation. The rally was held on January 24, and Pharmacy students from all three institutions were supported by those that have taken an interest in the plight that faces them.

Speaking to students at the rally, current fourth year students from low income households have “…already begun to see a deficit in their finances” and are not willing to ask their parents for money as they know that their families “…are barely keeping their heads above water”.

“The heads of the schools of Pharmacy have been in talks with the directors of the PSI.”

Many first year students mentioned that they were “…not aware that the situation was so bad” and have expressed gratitude to their senior counterparts who have “…taken the weight of this discrepancy, and fought against this unfair system, allowing us to have the opportunities that should have been afforded to them too”.

As a result of the united front and collaboration that has been shown, the heads of the schools of Pharmacy have been in talks with the directors of the PSI, culminating in an email that was sent to Pharmacy students on January 23 stating that the “…legislation governing the integrated MPharm programme and the PSI accreditation standards do not stipulate either payment or non-payment of these experiential learning placements”. On the day of the rally, the ban on payment was fully lifted. However Niamh Loughlin, a fourth year student and president of IPSA, has cautioned students that “…the decision to pay students is still at the discretion of the placement provider for each individual student”, which means that some students still might not get paid. This means that the lifting of the ban is still only one step forward in the direction of providing equal opportunity to all students.

However, in light of all the changes that have occured, these bright young students look forward with hope for a fair system that will compensate them for the dedication they are putting into becoming well-trained pharmacists, and vital pillars of the community.