For Angela Walsh, studying a bachelor’s degree in social work at age 45 is an opportunity for a fresh start, but it’s also juggling mortgage payments and 1,000 hours of unpaid labor.

The financial stress of the internship is a pressure shared by university students, especially those in health sciences and education.

With no specific government incentives on the table, students like Ms Walsh are without income for weeks or months at a time.

“I’m trying to save money so I can cover the costs…and I don’t really have the ability to rely on my family,” she said.

“How do we pay our rent, how do we pay our bills, how do we pay for food when we have to work for free for so long?”

Austudy ‘won’t cut it for me’

Ms Walsh will rely on Centrelink payments during her internship, but she said the $535 per fortnight would barely cover her bills.

“Austudy just isn’t enough to bring it down for me, especially with the recent rise in interest rates, my mortgage has gone up $200 in the last four months,” she said.

“I would like to see some kind of reward for the work we do, all the other jobs I know are paid for their training periods.

Some students at Curtin and other universities in Western Australia struggle to do so.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

“When we look at things like the lack of nurses and GPs in WA it’s partly because they can’t afford to do the internships and that’s a big deterrent for students .”

Nursing and teaching students rely on food donations: Guild

The sectors that desperately needed more graduates were also the degrees with the most demanding internships and Curtin Student Guild president Dylan Botica said that was no coincidence.

“Most of the time students don’t fully understand when they start a course that it means they are going to have to work full time for six weeks or more without any pay,” he said.

A man in a shirt looks at the camera.
Dylan Botica says the Curtin Guild has been talking with other universities and TAFE to tackle this issue.(ABC News: Grace Burma)

“We have students who become homeless and students who have to rely on a pantry on campus just to eat so they can meet the minimum requirement to become a nurse or a teacher.”

Mr Botica tried to appeal to the university to pay his students, but Curtin said it would not be appropriate given that the placement was “an integral part of their qualification”.

“If we’re going to address the staffing shortages, we need industry and state government to actually provide the resources for universities to adequately support students,” Botica said.

A photo of an orange building at Curtin University with a lawn in front and a person walking along it.
The Curtin Student Guild is asking the university to offer some sort of payment to students doing internships.(ABC News: Hugh Sando.)

The Ministries of Health and Education would not commit to offering general incentives to internship students.

A state government spokesperson said there were already financial aid programs, such as scholarships for nursing and midwifery students, and aid for teaching internships in regional areas.

Without investment “we are not going to have a workforce”

Phillip Della, WA’s former head of nursing and midwifery and former head of nursing at Curtin University, said if the state wanted to keep its number of graduates in critical areas, it had to keep up with the rest of the country.

“Other jurisdictions in Australia are starting to tackle this issue,” he said.

A man in a suit and tie looks directly at the camera.
Professor Phillip Della led an independent review of nurse and midwifery staffing in WA.(ABC News: Grace Burma)

“In New South Wales they offer $1,000 for student placement per year, in Victoria they offer registered undergraduates a nursing job in the system.”

Professor Della said WA was becoming increasingly unattractive for students to stay and study at home, which he said would be detrimental to the public sector.

“The reality is that if we don’t invest in students, we won’t get a workforce,” he said.