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Are unpaid placements exploiting students?

By Jack Campbell | |5 minute read

Many degrees, such as nursing, teaching, social work, and many more, require students to undergo multiple hours of unpaid “work experience”. While these opportunities are great for helping soon-to-be graduates learn on the job, the methods can be rather exploitative.

Under the Fair Work Act, student placements can, but don’t have to, be paid by the employer. In fact, the placement can be lawfully unpaid so long as the following criteria are followed:

  • There must be a placement: This can be arranged by the educational or training institution, or a student may initiate the placement with an individual business directly, in line with the requirements of their course.
  • There is no entitlement to pay for the work the student undertakes: Where a student’s contract with the host business or organisation entitles them to receive money for the work they perform, the placement will likely have turned into an employment relationship. Similarly, work arrangements covered by industrial awards or agreements are not student placements.
  • The placement must be done as a requirement of an education or training course: The placement must be a required component of the course as a whole or of an individual subject or module of the course. It doesn’t matter whether that subject is compulsory or an elective chosen by the student.
  • The placement must be one that is approved: The institution delivering the course that provides for the placement must be authorised under an Australian, state or territory law or an administrative arrangement of the Commonwealth or a state or territory to do so. Courses offered at universities, TAFE colleges and schools (whether public or private) will all satisfy this requirement, as will bodies authorised to offer training courses under state or territory legislation.

The Australian Universities Accord Interim Report discussed the issue of unpaid placements, highlighting that these methods have exacerbated skills shortages and attrition, especially in the healthcare industry.


“Difficulties supporting sufficient placements in healthcare (particularly nursing, allied health and psychology) and education are exacerbating shortages in these critical professions (with similar effects in other professions). These occupations are also facing challenges of attrition, which further reduces the ability of the workforce to support increasing placements. The cost to universities of providing placements is increasing faster than funding. Without addressing these issues, initiatives to boost the number of students entering the system in critical health workforce areas will fail,” said the report.

Unpaid placements often result in students foregoing paid work, severely impacting their ability to stay afloat, often relying on government or parental support. In the current economic climate, where the cost of living is leaving many families struggling, unpaid work can become less of a realistic option.

Regional students are reportedly hit hardest by this, as travel times to reach placements add another layer of pressure. The report calls for change to unpaid placements, whether in the form of support for students undergoing them or a reduction in HELP debts.

Similarly, a coalition of students, academics, and union representatives are calling for change regarding the placement of social work students.

According to the Australian Services Union (ASU), social work students are required to complete 1,000 hours of unpaid placements. That is equivalent to working six months full-time with no pay.

ASU NSW and ACT secretary Angus McFarland said: “Placement poverty among social work students is rife and must end. The very students who are dedicated to helping society’s most vulnerable are facing disadvantage and financial hardship themselves as a result of unpaid work placements.”

“Students can’t afford to complete an already expensive degree and forgo their paid job for months. Unpaid placements are an issue of poverty, equity and gender equality – most social work students are women, and many are mature aged and have caring responsibilities,” explained McFarland.

“One in five social work students are withdrawing from study due to financial stress. In a sector riddled with workforce shortages, unpaid work placements risk the loss of future staff in vital services, including family violence, homelessness, and disability. We need the federal government to seriously consider the options presented to them and act swiftly on the best solution for social work students – our future community heroes.”

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.