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Unethical and hypocritical - the universities promoting unpaid internships


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University College London recently withdrew an advertisement for an unpaid internship as a result of student outrage, following a similar decision last month by the University of Birmingham. Unpaid internships have proved to be a controversial topic, with employers seeing them as providing “essential experience” whilst many student groups are classifying them as “exploitation”.

Unpaid internshipsInternships are generally classed as a period of several months – a maximum of four, according to UCL’s own guidelines which it breached with its short-lived advertisement – at a junior or graduate level. These positions are often paid, sometimes not, and it is the latter which students are fighting against.

Unpaid internships are the scorn of student groups such as the University and College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students (NUS). They are seen not so much as throwing sand in the wheels of social mobility as picking it up and pushing it down the road in the other direction.

As Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre argues, “unpaid entry posts mean that the children of wealthy parents get in, get ahead, and do better, because their families can afford to give them money to pay rent and live in London while they earn no salary”.

As the culture of unpaid internships swells, Goldacre’s analysis is bleak: “The opportunities of the next generation, and the shape of our professions, are being determined by the wealth of people’s parents”.

Martin Paul Eve, associate lecturer at the University of Sussex, agrees. “If there are two candidates – one with private means who can afford to do the job for nothing, another without – the law of the market dictates that the former will "undercut" the pricing of the latter.”

He continues, “this setup... confuses privilege with perseverance”.

This is not mere scare-mongering. David Cameron has admitted he benefitted from a “definite leg-up internship” as a youngster and says he is “very relaxed” about offering such experience to personal acquaintances. When the Prime Minister offers an internship to his neighbour (as he did last year), it does little to calm fears that unpaid internships are averse to the concept of social mobility and meritocracy.

The issue is further complicated when it is a university at the centre of an unpaid internship debate. The role of higher education is to give young people the skills and experience to use as a springboard to find a job after graduation. So it is little wonder that students have reacted with fury after both Birmingham and UCL advertised long-term internship positions within their organisations without a salary. As Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, stated: “universities should be striving for excellence, not seeking to exploit those who can afford to work for nothing as free labour”.

One major problem is the difficulty in defining the subtle difference between work experience, which is generally deemed as useful and beneficiary for students, and internships, which last longer than a couple of weeks and may involve more responsibility.

Whilst Birmingham University called its “honorary” role for a research assistant a “voluntary” position, everything about the position suggested it was actually a ‘job’, according to Rebecca Boden, professor of critical management at the University of Roehampton. “You can’t get around the minimum wage legislation by calling something a voluntary position”, she says.

This country needs a serious discussion on unpaid internships, a controversial subject with a very hazy definition. The issue at the heart of the debate, involving both UCL and the University of Birmingham, is extremely pertinent. As the UK recovers from recession and a rate of unemployment not seen since 1994, the ever-increasing numbers of graduates are looking for any and every way to get ahead of their contemporaries.

Universities should be promoting student’s interests, not taking advantage of them, especially in light of the increased tuition fees being introduced this September which puts pressure on higher education establishments to offer more to students. Unpaid internships may sadly already be a part of the ‘system’, but it’s especially distressing to see academic institutions supporting them. 

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