Did your university tell you that unpaid internships are illegal? Did Prospects – supposedly the “official” graduate careers advice – provide you with any helpful advice on this issue?

New figures suggest that if you managed to find any useful information on the legalities of unpaid internships from either of these sources, you are in the minority. The latest research from Internocracy reveals that only 1 in 10 graduates is aware of the basic facts about internships – and Graduate Fog is concerned that those who are best placed to inform young people about their rights as workers are failing in their duty to do so.

It gets worse.

Not only are the facts about your rights not reaching you, but this website has learned that a large number of universities are actually promoting unpaid internships to their students and graduates.

Graduate Fog has even found some working with the highly controversial recruitment company Inspiring Interns (which takes a hefty fee from employers, while the intern receives less than the NMW for their work).

This is despite the fact that the uni careers advisers’ official body (AGCAS) has repeatedly said that it is against the practice of unpaid internships. In August 2010, AGCAS director Martin Pennington wrote in a letter to the Guardian:

Unpaid internships are not just exploitative of individuals but also restrict social mobility, as they are disproportionately difficult for graduates from lower socio-economic groups to take up, and reduce the number of entry level jobs for graduates and others. Current advice from AGCAS to its members is that they shouldn’t advertise or broker internships that contravene legislation.

No wonder young people are confused about their rights – it seems their careers advisers don’t have a clue about them either.

And then there’s Prospects. You would think, would you not, that “the UK’s official graduate careers website” would be all over the subject of internships, being as it’s THE big issue affecting graduates in 2011.

Dream on. When I searched for ‘internships,’ all I discovered was some seriously dodgy advice from Heather Collier, Director of the National Council for Work Experience:

NCWE don’t want to discourage companies from coming forward with opportunities for graduates or discourage graduates from taking them. It has to be a balance between getting the experience that is crucial for the first permanent job and not encouraging exploitation.

The main thing is for graduates not to allow themselves to be exploited. They should establish a time limit for the internship, get as much as they can from it, network for contacts and opportunities and when it is no longer mutually equitable i.e. fair to both parties, they should move on and use what they now have to look for the next internship or job.

We recommend that if a graduate is adding value to a company they should at least pay the minimum wage but whether the intern is ‘a worker’ is for the employer to decide.

Is Collier for real? And is this honestly the best information Prospects can provide for students and graduates desperately searching for paid work in 2011? Because I think it’s pretty pathetic.

For one thing, this bit:

…whether the intern is ‘a worker’ is for the employer to decide

…is just plain wrong. A “worker” has a legal definition – employers don’t get to decide anything (and most interns do meet the criteria).

And as for this line:

…The main thing is for graduates not to allow themselves to be exploited.

Is that supposed to be some kind of joke? The general impression is that this advice is given by ‘experts’ who have no understanding of the scale or complexity of this issue.

The fact that Prospects can’t even be bothered to get its head around THE most important issue affecting job-seeking graduates in 2011 means it does not have the right to be the market leader, in my opinion.

Bitter? Moi? That’s exactly the word a nameless Prospects representative used during a recent DM exchange. S/he said I was ‘bitter’ about Prospects’ size and reach – presumably because, next to them, Graduate Fog is a very small fish.

The accusation is incorrect. I am not ‘bitter’. Prospects is a huge, lumbering dinosaur of a website. Despite its vast funding through advertising on its job board (it is the biggest graduate job board in the UK), it still fails to be actually useful for most graduates seeking advice and information. Its size comes thanks to the fact that it is recommended by every university in the country, not because it’s actually any good.

What I am is angry – and frustrated.

If Prospects and their close friends at the university careers advice centres were doing a good job of providing you lot with excellent information and advice, I would honestly have no problem with their sprawling dominance over the market. But they aren’t doing a good job. In fact, they are doing a spectacularly bad job – at a time when the stakes are too high for that to be acceptable.

Young people are spending tens of thousands of pounds to obtain their degree – and are emerging from university facing a nightmare job market. Employers remain cautious about hiring, graduate salaries are stalling, too many companies are taking advantage of young workers through unpaid internships – and politicians have failed to stand up for your right to be paid for your work (yes, our NMW laws DO apply to interns – and no, you can’t waive your right to be paid).

Becky Heath – co-founder of Internocracy – agrees that the universities must do more to educate students about their rights. She told Graduate Fog:

Universities are ideally placed to inform young people about their rights as interns. Unfortunately, our figures would suggest that this isn’t happening. Students are being told to get an internship or work experience to help them get a job, but not alerted to the potential issues surrounding pay and the quality of their placement.

It is also worrying to learn that some universities are actually promoting unpaid internships to their students and graduates – as these are likely to be illegal. I would like to see the university careers staff gaining clarity on the details of this issue so that they can play a more active role in the fight against this corrosive practice.

Given the seriousness of this situation, I think universities and Prospects should be hanging their heads in shame at the news that only 10% of graduates know their rights when it comes to internships. If they choose to have a monopoly over the careers advice sector, they have a responsibility to do a good job of serving their customers. You have the right to a far better service than they are currently providing.

*Did your university inform you about your rights as an intern?
Should universities promote unpaid internships to their students and graduates – or take a stronger stand against employers who exploit young workers? What about Prospects? Do you rate it for useful, in-depth advice and discussion – or is it just a soulless, money-making job board?

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