*Graduate Fog exclusive!*

Why are university careers services doing so little to fight the problem of unpaid internships?

Why do only 10% of graduates know that unpaid internships are illegal? And why are many universities still advertising unpaid internships — legitimising the practice and undermining the work of those of us who are trying to raise awareness about the issue?

These questions have been bugging me for months. Naively, I assumed the answer lay with the careers services’ institutionalised incompetence (regular readers will know I’m not a big fan). But now it seems that the real reason could be far more sinister.

A senior figure in the world of university careers advice has told me that many universities are continuing to promote illegal unpaid internships to their students and graduates — and failing to inform you about your rights as interns — because they are desperate to maintain their relationships with the companies that offer these ‘opportunities’ so that their institutions will emerge favourably in the university league tables. In many cases, universities are counting graduates doing unpaid internships as ’employed’ in their destination statistics.

This is admission is shocking — and proves that many universities are putting their own agenda ahead of informing you, their students and graduates, about your rights as you enter the world of work.

The source said that universities were increasingly concerned about keeping their ‘success rates’ high and knew that if they refused to advertise an prestigious unpaid internship — at a political think tank, for example — their competitors would have no such scruples and one of their graduates would bag the position instead.

Unpaid internships are THE big issue for anybody graduating in 2011 — and I feel strongly that university careers advisers are perfectly placed to help spread the message about interns’ rights to pay. Careers services are also perfectly placed to block companies that seek to exploit interns from gaining access to their students and graduates.

Yes, these companies can pursue candidates for their internships through other means (websites like w4mp and Gorkana will happily advertise all manner of dodgy internships) — but it would be a start. It would also help them deliver a consistent message to their students and graduates that unpaid internships are illegal and unethical.

The source also said that universities feel pressure from their students and graduates to advertise the unpaid internships — as these offer the best (and often the only) route into competitive industries such as politics, media and charity. So they continue to promote them even though they know they break the law — and exclude those graduates who can’t afford to work for free.

By continuing to promote unpaid internships to their students and graduates, university careers advisers are becoming part of the problem — not the solution — of graduate unemployment. They are confusing young people about the legal issues — and effectively assisting exploitative employers in recruiting for illegal positions.

They can hardly claim that they are not aware of the facts — or how they should be behaving.
For many months now, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) has been extremely supportive of interns’ rights to pay — and very clear in advising its members not to assist organisations which seek to break the law by recruiting graduates without paying them for their work. In a letter to the Guardian in August 2010, AGCAS director Martin Pennington wrote:

“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.”

Not all universities are guilty of this. The University of London’s careers service — headed by AGCAS President Anne-Marie Martin — has a policy of not advertising unpaid internships, and they stick to it. She told Graduate Fog that the source I had spoken to “sums up the dilemmas faced by careers services very well” — but reminded AGCAS members that the official advice had not changed and they were “not to advertise any vacancy that breaks the law.”

Likewise, Liverpool University refuses to help employers to exploit its students and graduates. Head of Careers and Employability Paul Redmond told Graduate Fog:

“I can’t comment on other universities — it’s not my place to pass judgement on other organisations – but at Liverpool we took the decision to only handle paid internships because a) our grads are excellent quality; b) unpaid interns damage all earnings; c) going to work costs money, so unpaid actually means you pay for the experience; d) lack of clarity about legal implications. There’s also the social equity issue — who can actually afford to work for nothing?

“This policy hasn’t had any adverse effects whatsoever on our recruitment stats or on our relationships with employers. In fact, last year, we advertised over 70 per cent more job vacancies than in 2010.”

Redmond added that any university advertising unpaid internships would find it, “a completely self-defeating ‘race to the bottom’ strategy and one which ultimately risks reducing salaries for all graduates.” He also said the message from AGCAS “couldn’t be more clear.”

However, it appears that AGCAS’s members are continuing to flout this advice. In their increasing desperation to keep recruiters on-side, they are failing their duty towards the students and graduates — who wrongly assume that they have their best interests at heart.

*Are you shocked by these revelations?
Should universities be sucking up to those who exploit their interns – or doing more to inform students and graduates about their rights and the battle against unpaid internships? Should unis be allowed to count graduates working as unpaid interns as ’employed’ – or does it distorted the picture that’s presented to prospective students?

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