The “official” graduate careers advice website Prospects — recommended by every university careers centre in the country — has told Graduate Fog that it feels that the controversial pay-thousands-to-intern-unpaid-abroad schemes it advertises are “legitimate opportunities”.

In email correspondence with us last week, Prospects’ boss Mike Hill did not apologise for promoting these internships on his website — nor did he show any sign that he plans to reconsider Prospects’ policy on advertising these opportunities, despite the fact that they continue to draw strong criticism from many graduates. The row led Graduate Fog to inform him that “Frankly, your website isn’t very good.”

Hill’s comments were sparked by Graduate Fog’s revelation a fortnight ago that Prospects — supposedly the “official graduate careers website” — has been using its website to advertise several controversial pay-to-intern-abroad schemes, some of which charge desperate graduates more than £3,000 for the chance to go and work abroad for free.

In his email, Hill insisted:

“…the organisations you mention are established companies offering legitimate opportunities for work experience and are communicated as such on… We have extremely high standards regarding the vacancies… and only advertise opportunities which are legal and provide genuine, valuable opportunities for those who choose to undertake them.”

He challenged Graduate Fog’s suggestion that his website has a monopoly of the graduate careers market and has too close a relationship with the university careers advisers — which we believe prevents good quality careers advice from other (better) providers from reaching students and graduates:

“We do not have a ‘cosy’ relationship with Careers Services, nor a monopoly on careers advice, but we have worked to support careers services for over 40 years — gifting significant sums of money to the careers sector, in support of the dissemination of unbiased careers advice.”

Hill also denied that it was inappropriate for Prospects to retain its prestigious, trust-building and financially valuable web address, which gives it a huge commercial advantage and which we understand it would not be eligible for if it applied today:

“Our use of the web address is entirely valid, as you were informed when you contested it last year.”

But — most bizarrely — he stressed Prospects’ link with the National Council for Work Experience, lecturing us on the excellent work it does (Really?) in “campaigning” for a “better standards in work experience” (How?), “lobbying government” (When?) and “working closely with employers to develop best practice standards” (How’s that going?). Graduate Fog is frankly baffled by how Hill can continue to claim this, when Prospects advertises pay-to-intern-abroad-for-free internships and dishes out “Best Graduate Internship” NWCE awards to charities that don’t pay their interns. Graduate Fog has also never encountered a single representative from the NCWE at any of the many interns’ rights meetings and debates we have attended in the last two years. We have never been contacted by anybody from this organisation and very rarely see them quoted in the press talking about the scandal of unpaid internships. And if Prospects doing such a great job of using its position as the biggest graduate careers website to inform graduates about their rights to wages, why do only 10% of graduates even know that unpaid internships are illegal? If the NCWE is campaigning on this issue, it is doing it very quietly. But no, Hill was insistent:

“HECSU [the charitable arm of Prospects] funds the National Council for Work Experience, a charitable organisation which was established to encourage and support the development of quality standards across all forms of work experience, and to disseminate good practice regarding work placements. The NCWE was one of the first organisations to campaign for better standards in work experience, lobbying government and working closely with employers to develop best practice standards. The annual NCWE awards is the largest and most influential celebration of good practice in graduate work experience and is attended by over 250 members from the UK’s graduate work experience arena every year.”

Frankly, Hill’s email made our blood boil. Who are these Prospects jokers – and how can they continue to claim they are doing such a brilliant job of careers advice and campaigning for fairer internships, when so many graduates continue to feel lost, uninspired, and ill-informed about how to get their career started in 2012? We should have taken a moment to calm ourselves before responding. But we didn’t. Oops. Here are some excerpts from our reply:

In response to Hill’s assertion that these pay-to-intern-unpaid-abroad are “legitimate opportunities” from “established companies”…

“I’m not interested in whether these companies are ‘established’ or ‘legitimate’ (whatever you mean by that). I’m aware that what these companies do seem to slip between the cracks of the UK’s national minimum wage law (because the work is done abroad), but don’t you think that companies that charge young people £3,000+ for them to work for free (wherever that work takes place) are by definition unsuitable advertisers on the ‘official’ graduate careers advice website? Doesn’t taking these companies’ money feel wrong to you at all?”

In response to his defence that other commercial websites advertise them — and that some graduates find them useful experiences:

“I’m not interested in Milkround, the Times or Rate My Placement – none of them calls themselves ‘the official graduate careers advice website’ or has an web addresss or a monopoly of the careers market. And what interns say about their experience is completely irrelevant – as you should know, unpaid interns often sing the praises of their employers and unpaid internships, because they are unaware of their rights, or of the fact that unpaid internships are a new phenomenon, not in fact a ‘rite of passage’. The fact that you seem not to understand that and appear to be trying to use their views as proof of these internships’ value is  extremely surprising to me, given your links with the National Council for Work Experience. Everyone else working in this space knows this argument inside out and knows that what ‘Stockholm syndrome’ interns have to say about their experiences is simply a demonstration of how vulnerable, impressionable and badly informed they are about this issue – something Prospects has done little to change.”

In response to Graduate Fog’s suggestion that Prospects’ relationship with the universities is too close and that their possession of the web address is fair:

“It looks like we’ll have to agree to differ on that one Mike. In the last two years I have spoken to dozens of people working in the careers and recruitment world who have a huge problem with Prospects and the way it dominates the sector even though – frankly – your website isn’t very good. I will  continue to challenge what I believe is a clear monopoly of the market – because I believe it is a large part of the reason why good careers advice isn’t reaching the young people who need it the most. In this economic climate, with unpaid internships spreading, tuition fees rising and the cost of living soaring, I believe young people need – and deserve – far better services than Prospects and the universities are currently providing. Also, your possession of the domain name may be allowed for historical / small print reasons – but it is my understanding that if Prospects applied for that address today, you would not be granted it because your company does not meet the criteria. Having that domain name means you have a huge advantage over other providers of careers advice – and it also gives your website an ‘official’ status that I believe it does not deserve.”

In response to Hill’s claim that the NCWE is “campaigning” tirelessly to improve the internships situation:

“Really? What exactly has the NCWE done to ‘campaign’ on this issue in the last two years? It’s odd that I – and other campaigners like Intern Aware – rarely encounter your representatives on the interns’ rights circuit, never see you quoted in the press talking about this issue and have never been contacted by the NCWE directly to enquire about working together. In fact, I only seem to hear about the NCWE when it is giving “Graduate Internship of the Year” awards to charities that use unpaid interns, which – being the CEO of the ‘official’ graduate careers advice website – I’m sure you know is another extremely controversial issue among today’s graduates. It is my opinion that the messages being sent out from both Prospects and the NCWE continue to be confused and unhelpful to graduates – and I’m going to continue to keep saying it because I believe they need – and deserve – better.”

Oh dear, sorry. We probably shouldn’t have been quite so aggro – but these guys just really wind us up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been no response from Prospects. But how much longer can they continue to dodge questions about whether they deserve to be the “official graduate careers advice website”?

Have you used the website – and did you find it helpful? Should they take down the adverts for pay-to-intern-abroad schemes? Is the National Council for Work Experience doing anything useful to help interns get a fairer deal from their employers?

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