Unpaid student placements : an industry conundrum


There has been much discussion on the Twitters lately about unpaid student labour. I’ve been thinking about it and participating in some of the discussions and I have no answers to this dilemma. I do however have some thoughts that can’t be fully articulated in tweets.

For me it all began with seeing this tweet

which prompted a discussion in the Australian GLAM context.

At the same time this tweet

was causing a Twitterstorm in the US in the GLAMsphere and beyond. I’m no expert but the US and Australian contexts are not direct parallels, my understanding is that internships are a bigger problem in the US. Certainly many of the responses to this second tweet by @adam22 focused on the exploitative nature, as well as classist and racist implications of several-month long unpaid internships. These implications are  transferable to the degree-required unpaid student placement discussion in Australia (as prompted by the first tweet from @lissertations). Unpaid placements are the cause of hardship for many and represent a demonstration of privilege that the profession can ill afford. Just as Alissa felt the need to clarify her thoughts, I too feel the need to articulate more clearly my thoughts on this issue.

The sprawling threads of the discussions have been appearing in my feed, the following is my summary of some of the points that many people seem to agree on:

  • Placements are an expectation of ALIA for course accreditation, as part of producing industry ready graduates
  • Placements provide an opportunity for students to access to premier or niche institutions that they might not otherwise easily gain access to
  • Placements offer the opportunity to gain experience if a student does not have much;  or diversify skillsets and sample other sectors for those who are already working in the industry, eg. a student working at a public library can do a placement at an academic library
  • Many people (though not all) have a great time during their placements, applying knowledge, gaining experience, networking and sometimes landing paid work
  • Many people have struggled to manage work/leave/caring/financial/travel commitments in order to complete their unpaid placements

All in all I think most people seem to agree that placements offer a valuable experience to students, I agree with all of the points above. However I also think that compulsory unpaid placements place an unfair burden on the student. As someone who did/does not have a great deal of experience in GLAM I really needed every bit of practical experience I could get throughout my studies. My degree required a three week placement, and I knew I needed to complete it to flesh out my resume. While I had and excellent placement experience, it did involve some serious family wrangling to ensure my primary carer duties were covered.

Last year I wrote about how I wished I could have had more practical experience in GLAM school, (fully recognising that further placements would have made my DE study much harder), so I love the idea from @librarianmer suggesting embedding practical coursework in the form of real projects for real libraries. This would be super valuable to students.

As I said I don’t have the answers, I just strongly feel that there should be more options available to students to gain credit for the industry experience portion of their qualification. The compulsory unpaid bit is the sticking point*. Projects for real world institutions, recognition of prior learning for paid work, cross-unit experiences in a current workplace, higher duties in a current workplace, specific project work outside of normal duties in a current workplace, secondment to another institution….these are all options that I feel could be explored. Surely these kinds of options would not require a significantly higher amount of administrative work to facilitate? Voluntary placements do not have to be banished, they could always remain an option for those who have the means and are not currently employed, or those who wish to look outside of their current workplace.

@datalibsam wrote a great post which I think provides a valuable perspective, outlining the investment a host institution makes in a placement student and also offered the following suggestion for nutting out a way forward


I’d love to see this happen. If everyone who has a vested interest could be represented in a group discussion I’m sure some workable solutions could be proposed.


*Different institutions have varying placement requirements. The institution I studied at strongly preferred the three weeks to be completed in a block. I once had a conversation with someone from the institution who said that credit for the four day study visit and three week placement were rarely given to students because the institution wanted students to diversify their industry experience. While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment to get out there and see how others are doing their GLAM thing, I do think there should be some flexibility for students to demonstrate/attain that diversity of experience.


3 thoughts on “Unpaid student placements : an industry conundrum

  1. Reading all this discussion with great interest and I think the extent of the discussion highlights its complexity; the need for many to have a rich and varied experience directy in their new industry, the huge amount of time and effort at no cost to the student put in by willing and wonderful industry hosts, the administrative work involved by educational institutions, the requirements of professional bodies, the need for the opportunity of applying new knowledge to practice and the more intrinsic value of perhaps experiencing something new to add to our existing knowlege and skill set. We place over 200 students a year and overwhelmingly the response is positive, excited, delighted and appreciative of the organsiations and professionals who give of their time. Many find new careers directly as a result of their placement. It is also for many their first qualification —something that tends to be forgotten but I think important.

    Reading through the list of possible solutions suggested it is probably worth highlighting that every single one of them is already an option and used by student every year as an alternative. In terms of equity there are also equity scholarships for workplacment and in my experience many, particularly those who have struggled to find work, the opportunity to complere a placement and get back in to the workforce is one they grab with both hands. For others despite the difficulties in achieveing placement it is made worthwhile by the outcomes. I guess from my perspective the greatest opportunity gained in placement are for those who are struggling the most.

    As an educator I also have an obligation to the student and the profession to assist in developing the best new professionals possible and there is little doubt for me that a rich and varied practical experience alongside theoretical knowledge contributes to that. Perhaps then for me the discussion is not ‘if’ placement but how flexible and balanced the ways it can be achieved are and how aware people are of their options. I could go on but won’t!


    1. Thanks Mary, your perspective from the educational institution is probably the one I understand least in terms of what is required. There are so many levels to get from the subject level to accreditation from the professional bodies, and I confess I have very little understand of what goes on behind the scenes. Your comment “perhaps then for me the discussion is not ‘if’ placement but how flexible and balanced the ways it can be achieved are and how aware people are of their options” absolutely sums up this discussion for me. Especially regarding how best to make students aware that there are many ways of obtaining that professional placement experience. While it’s good to know that students are already doing flexible placements, as a student I was never made aware of (nor considered there might be) other options to the unpaid 3 week block. A little bit of my own personal naivety there perhaps 🙂


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