Education or Exploitation? – Unpaid mandatory placements causing students financial hardship 

It’s no secret that young people are struggling financially right now: increased cost-of-living, significant rent rises, and HECS indexation at a record high are all the current reality for Australian students. 

And those undertaking mandatory unpaid placements are often under increased levels of financial strain. Not only are they often not able to work for several months at a time, but they could also be facing extra costs associated with completing their prac – like required clothing, stationery, or additional travel costs.  

Mandatory unpaid placements (or internships or pracs or work integrated learning) are core parts of many degrees and higher education courses such as teaching, nursing, paramedics, pharmacy, psychology, social work, and occupational therapy. 

According to Fair Work, a student placement is an arrangement that “…provides students with the opportunity to apply the theory and skills they learned while studying in a professional workplace.” Under the Fair Work Act, these placements are lawfully unpaid if: 

  1. There is a placement, arranged by the educational facility or the student with an individual business, in line with the requirements of their course.  
  1. There must be no entitlement to pay for the work the student undertakes. This means there cannot be a contract or other arrangement entitling the student to receive money for their work. 
  1. The placement must be done as a requirement of an education or training course. The placement must be a required component of the course.  
  1. The placement must be one that is approved. The education institution through which you are completing the course must be authorised to do so. This includes universities, TAFE and schools.  

If all of these requirements are met, then you do not need to be paid for your work under the Fair Work Act. Of course, the business you are completing your placement through can choose to pay you, if they want to.  

What this means is that universities cannot decide to end unpaid placements or force businesses to pay students for their work. To change mandatory unpaid placements, legislative reform would need to be undertaken. 

QUT Professor and Head of the Social Work and Human Services Disciplines, Christine Morley, is an advocate for exposing student poverty and securing paid student placements. 

“The placement situation in its current form has unfortunately become untenable for many students, and we do need reforms in this area,” she said. 

Professor Morley has been researching the experiences of Australian social work students and the financial burdens they face when completing field education for years, and has participated in several studies around this issue.  

One study found almost 34% of students lost their entire weekly income due to placement, and 96% of students said they didn’t have enough money to pay for essentials like food, clothes and travel. 

Another found that just 2.4% of respondents were able to take paid leave from their work to complete their placements; one student saved up their overtime for over two years, another used all their annual leave but was still unable to cover the full placement period.  

Costs can vary wildly and depend heavily on the student’s personal circumstances: how long the placement is, how far you have travel, and whether you need to purchase specific clothing or tools are just some of the factors that can impact your financial situation.  

While many degrees that require placement allow students to nominate regions they are willing to travel to, some courses require regional placements and students are expected to arrange their own funding.  

Tatiana, a third-year radiation therapy student who has completed several placements, said it was stressful to budget for her regional placement, particularly in today’s economy.  

“In my second year…I had to travel to Townsville where I had to pay for my own transportation and accommodation for five weeks,” she said. 

“Luckily, I was able to go on leave from my part time job and had the help of Youth Allowance, which almost covered the cost of travelling there and accommodation.” 

There are some grants students can apply for, but they don’t usually cover the full cost of the placement and some scholarships have limited numbers of grants available. 

As part of their most recent budget, the Queensland Government announced they would offer final year student nurses and midwives a $5,000 cost-of-living allowance, if they chose to go on placements in regional, rural or remote (RRR) Queensland.  

Queensland Health Minister Shannon Fentiman told the ABC this week that hundreds of students had already registered their interest in the scheme, with many expressions of interest coming in interstate and overseas.  

Treasurer Cameron Dick said around 1,000 trainees per year would be assisted by the $21.96 million scheme. 

While $5,000 sounds like a lot of money, it doesn’t last long when you factor in all of the expenses related to taking a rural, remote or regional placement.  

For example, a round trip flight to Moranbah (a town in Central Queensland) from Brisbane would set a student back around $600. The cheapest accommodation currently available works out to around $1,500 per week, which means a placement student would need around $6,000 to complete a 20-day placement. Without factoring in food and transport, the Queensland Government’s new allowance is already blown. 

Education student Tieriney recently completed a remote placement and struggled to afford essential items, spending around $4,500 during their 20-day placement on basics like accommodation and food. 

“Regional, rural, and remote placements take more time, money and effort than metro and QUT doesn’t really set that expectation clearly before you apply,” Tieriney said. 

Masters of Teaching student Suraya started planning for her unpaid placements well in advance, working two jobs before her final placement, and recommended students look into what flexible work arrangements might be available to them. 

“Before my final placement, I organised a casual role at a service station which was suitable and flexible as I could work weekends or public holidays,” she said. 

“This helps with consistent income for the necessities, even if it is a lot less than what you’d earn without needing to take the weekdays for placements.” 

If you’re studying education, it might be worth looking into completing a RRR placement, as there are specific scholarships available, and you might be able to arrange affordable accommodation directly through the school.  

Masters of Teaching student Katie plans to move to Central Queensland for her first teaching job but didn’t think that a RRR placement would be affordable or accessible to her.  

“I spoke to TECE (Teacher Enhancement Centre) and they were so helpful, assuring me that if they couldn’t place me where I wanted, they would let the uni know in plenty of time so I could be placed locally.  

“I found out in a few weeks and now I am in the process of having accommodation confirmed. This is all done through the school, so I am in contact with the school directly and have filled out a form to get accommodation provided temporarily on prac, paying roughly $50 a week.” 

It’s clear more support is needed to help students survive if they are going to continue to be subjected to unpaid placements, especially with QUT own’s placement support bursaries being complicated to apply for.  

The Guild’s recent placement support program was met with backlash from some students, who argued that a $50 voucher was barely helpful. Others argued that something is better than nothing. Glass has contacted both QUT and Guild SRC members for comment on this issue to be published in a future article. 

So, what can students do about ending mandatory unpaid placements?  

One simple action any student can take is joining and following the Students Against Placement Poverty. SAPP is a revival of the student-led effort to win fair pay for mandatory placements in degrees like Education, Social Work, Nursing, Engineering and others. The organisation is made up of a group of students from different universities across Sydney. 

SAPP are campaigning to the Australian Association of Social Workers and National Professional Standards for Teachers to take action to ensure students are “…fairly remunerated for the hundreds of hours they are required to work as part of mandatory placements in social work and teaching programs.” Students who want to join the fight can sign their open letter to these organisations and attend a national Zoom forum on Wednesday 28 June 2023.  

The National Union of Students has also campaigned to end unpaid internships. The Union does not believe that mandatory unpaid placements provide the value of educational experience as required under the law and argue that this is an “…exploitative process where students have to give up paid employment to work hundreds of hours a semester.” 

“We believe that in an equitable society all people should be paid for every hour of work, (unless they are volunteering for a charitable organisation). We do not believe that students should be paying fees to undertake unpaid internship units.” 

The NUS are the peak representative and advocacy body for post school students in Australia, and its membership comprises university unions like the QUT Student Guild. The QUT Student Guild has not yet announced public support of the NUS campaign to end unpaid internships. 

You can become involved with the NUS by attending their events, engaging with them on social media, and supporting their campaigns.  

“We pay apprenticeship wages for trades, so why not support students who are studying vital professions?” Professor Morley said. 

“Whichever way we do it, we need to stop assuming all university students have wealthy parents who can fund their studies. And we need to stop pretending free labour is the best way for students to learn.” 

Celeste Muller
Celeste Muller

Celeste (she/her) is a Meanjin/Brisbane based writer and Editor at Glass Media. She has a Bachelor's degree in Design (Interior Design) and is currently studying Journalism and Economics at QUT.

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