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Unpaid internships: rite of passage or pipe dream?

Credit: Adobe Stock - Education License

Internships are a stepping stone in order to land your dream job, or a requirement to obtain your degree. It’s all for the experience; you shouldn't expect to be paid.

Amidst a cost of living crisis, the idea of applying for internships is beginning to be out of one’s reach. The pressure to earn a living wage while also gaining necessary work experience has become a conflicting idea.

The Fair Work Act currently allows for unpaid internships to be legal, unless there is an “employment relationship”. As long as the employee is not entitled to a minimum wage, the National Employment Standards or any reward for their work, there are no grounds to terminate an unpaid placement.

For the tertiary students who have to complete a professional placement to receive their graduation certificate, they have little choice but to work for free.

The financial pressure placed upon university students is important to address now more than ever. HECS payments have recently had some publicity, which the government has responded to by changing the way HECS debt is indexed. Now, HECS payments will be indexed at whichever rate of increase is lower between inflation and wages.

Amelie Siruelo, a second-year science student at Monash University, said, “I think [unpaid internships] are awful. I find a lot of my friends are living out of their savings and often have to prioritise work to prepare for placement itself, but because of that, they fall behind in university content.”

Eliza Kelly, a second-year nursing student at Australian Catholic University, believes that unpaid placements are “completely unfair for students as [it] leaves students struggling to cover their living expenses”.

Many vocational degrees — nursing, teaching and social work amongst them — have a requirement of almost six months’ worth of work experience or an equivalent of 1000 hours.

Recent pressure from similar students has caused the government to introduce a new Commonwealth payment scheme for these vocational fields. It was announced on Monday, May 6 that a payment of $319.50 a week would be available for students in these fields who are a part of unpaid placements from July 2025.

In an interview with ABC Radio, the Education MP Hon. Jason Clare MP stated that “this will give people who have signed up to do some of the most important jobs in this country a bit of extra help to get the qualifications they need”.

In response to this new Commonwealth payment scheme, nursing student Eliza said it is “a good first step in helping students relieve some stress whilst on placement”.

“Some students say prac means they have to give up their part-time job, and that they don’t have the money to pay the bills,” said Hon. Jason Clare MP.

Multiple students have been forced to choose between remaining enrolled in university and being able to afford groceries and rent.

As university students continue to grapple with the rising cost of living and the pressure to obtain a decent job, will this support from the government persist or will students have to simply brave it?


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