Australia Today

What’s Going On With Unpaid University Internships in Australia?

Legal under certain conditions, unpaid internships are proving increasingly untenable as cost of living gets tougher.
Students sitting on the grass at campus

Calls to end unpaid university internships are increasing this week as advocates say students can’t afford it.

In Australia, unpaid internships are legal under a few conditions.
According to the Fair Work Act, an internship can be unpaid only if the worker is on student or vocational placement, and there's no employment relationship. If there is an employment relationship, then national employment standards like minimum or award wages are applicable.


This week, the federal government’s Higher Education Support Amendment bill is before public hearings — and while the changes to the act it’s proposing are pretty minor, it has come attached to the biggest and broadest review of Australia's higher education system in 15 years, which was launched late last year. The interim report, released in July, concluded the number of jobs that require a university qualification has and will continue to increase. Thirty-six per cent of the current Australian workforce has a university qualification, and that’s expected to jump to 55 per cent by 2050.

But as more jobs require degrees, the government needs to figure out how to help more people get them to prevent skills shortages. Right now, it’s pretty unaffordable to dedicate several years of your life to study instead of just earning money.

Speaking at the public hearing for the amendment l bill today, CEO of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, said under current cost of living pressures dropout rates were increasing — in part because students couldn’t afford to basically work full or part-time unpaid in a mandatory placement or internships.


“This is a real issue, these are students who have to do a placement as part of finalising their degree and are finding they’re having terrible trouble affording to do it … students who have the most trouble have the least resources,” she said.

“These are all people working in areas of serious skills shortage so this is madness … these are people close to the end of their degrees … it seems crazy we have blocks to people getting degrees.”

Several MPs have also raised the issue of placement poverty in parliament this week, calling on the federal government to fully fund placements for people studying nursing, teaching and social work, who currently have to complete up to 1,000 hours of free labour to get their degrees.

The Students Against Placement Poverty group also spoke at the public hearing today and said some of the country’s most marginalised individuals and communities are grimly reminded that, as it stands in Australia, the path to empowerment and prosperity is exclusively reserved to those wealthy and privileged enough to pay for it.

Aleksandra Bliszczyk is the Deputy Editor of VICE Australia. Follow her on Instagram.