A new report commissioned by the government has shocked students and graduates by suggesting that every university student should complete up to 12 weeks of interning as part of their degree — even if the placements are unpaid.

Er, hello? Have we not already discovered that unpaid work has been a total disaster for young people? That this supposed ‘quick fix’ practice has led the to the exploitation – or exclusion – of hundreds of thousands of graduates already? How exactly would rolling it out (and normalising it) to include undergraduates (as well as graduates) do anything other than make things even worse for young people looking for proper, paid jobs?

It also raises questions about what exactly young people are paying £9,000 a year in ‘tuition fees’ to their university for — if they are required to work unpaid for a sizeable chunk of that year. It is suggested that students complete these unpaid internships during their summer vacations — but isn’t that when many students are working in paid jobs to try and save money to pay for their degree?

While it is vital that graduates are confident that their qualification will be valued by employers when they finish university, it seems that this report is suggesting that higher education should effectively become a training bootcamp for the world of work. But if that is what it is going to be, shouldn’t employers be paying for it? Is this just the latest example of universities putting their profits first, and their students last?

The graduate unemployment problem is due to the fact that there are too many graduates and not enough jobs – not that graduates don’t have enough experience. Experience should be something you get while you’re doing a paid job, not something you get from university which you are paying to attend.

This supposedly brilliant suggestion about compulsory internships came as part of The Wilson Review, authored by the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, Tim Wilson. In it, he sings the praises of internships as a marvellous method for helping graduates into work — and suggests that they should be rolled out by universities to help undergraduates in the same way. The genius says:

“The world has changed. If you look at a lot of internships offered in the corporate sector, these are highly competitive. I think we’re beginning to see internships being used as part of an extended interview process.

“…Internships may be paid or unpaid, depending upon the employer’s policy about such schemes…Graduate internships have become increasingly popular, and have acquired a strong reputation for helping students into full-time work.”

Seriously, where did they find this joker?! And does he know the first thing about what he’s talking about? Nowhere does he mention the minimum wage law, which states that most graduate interns should be paid at least the minimum wage for their labour. Payment of this wage is not optional – it is mandatory.

That said, the law is slightly different for students who are doing unpaid internships as part of their course – a loophole says that these interns need not be paid. Graduate Fog has been concerned for some time that this effectively gives universities (and employers) free rein to exploit students who are effectively doing proper jobs for them, just without a salary.

It has never been clear to us why a student should not have the right to be paid at least the National Minimum Wage for their labour, when every other member of society is protected by this law (at least in theory, if HM Revenue and Customs ever plan to show they give a damn about young people by actually enforcing it). For everybody else, the rules state that if someone has set hours and set responsibilities and is carrying out work that is of real value to their employer (not just work shadowing), they must be paid.

What Wilson does say is that firms offering paid placements as part of the initiative should be financially supported by the government through a tax credit or grant. Where internships are unpaid, universities should be urged to provide financial subsidies to support those students from poorer families who would otherwise be priced out of participating in the scheme:

“Where internships are unpaid, universities should use their ‘OFFA (Office for fair access, the universities access watchdog) fund’ (cash to help disadvantaged students) to support eligible students rather than condone a policy that could inhibit social mobility.”

Er, so only the very poorest students will receive payment for their work? What about everybody else?

While we are in favour of universities putting more thought into ensuring their graduates are employable at the end of their degree, we have already made up our minds that divorcing pay from work creates far more problems than it solves.

We have already seen with graduates how unpaid internships have devalued their labour, reduced the number of paid opportunities around and made it even more difficult to find proper, permanent, salaried jobs. Increasing the number of unpaid student internships will only make things worse — for students and graduates. If employers can ‘get an intern in’ to do a job for free, why on earth would they bother hiring – and paying – a proper graduate employee?

*What do you think about student internships?
Will they make things better or worse for graduates? Will more experience help students find jobs once they graduate? Are universities putting their profits before their students? Is this just another new way to rip off young people?

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