Unpaid internships: selling our graduates short

They used to be seen as supplementary to a degree, a little extra perk that one could stick on the CV. Now, they are often seen as mandatory

Victoria Finan
Wednesday 27 November 2013 16:37
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Sometimes, being a third year student can feel as if you’re stood underneath a ‘graduate job’ sized mountain with no climbing gear and a ton of rocks about to fall onto your unsuspecting head.

Every day we are bombarded with emails. ‘MASTER OF ARTS: APPLY NOW.’ ‘GRADUATE SCHEME: CLOSING IN TWO DAYS.’ And every day, we get a little bit closer to G-Day, graduation, where we will be extremely ceremoniously turfed from our campuses into the big, bad world with little idea of what to do when we get there.

It’s not a welcome prospect for many of the nation’s soon-to-be graduates. With graduate-level employment at a disastrous low, and with the average salary being as low as £18,000, they can be forgiven for not wanting to escape the comfort of academia just yet. However, for many, the prospect of working in an unskilled role is far more palatable than the alternative- working for free.

Unpaid internships used to be seen as supplementary to a degree, a little extra perk that one could stick on the CV to prove that you did more with your life than downing cheap bottles of wine at the student union. Now, increasingly, in many career paths they are seen as mandatory to even get your big toe in the door. And despite some claiming that they are all graduate deserves - they are an insult to graduates in a world which owes them far more than many will admit.

There is, of course, a difference between a two-week work experience placement and a true unpaid internship. Work experience roles are beneficial - they are long enough that you get a real idea of what a career in respective industries might be like, but short enough that you won’t be too out of pocket.

However, some internships can last up to six months. Six months of, at best, being paid your Tube fare and maybe getting a soggy sandwich. Six months, running a debt of thousands of pounds doing a job that, according to the law, you should be paid for.

And yet we have writers like Lauren Razavi who insist that these internships are not a class issue. It’s not a case of not working hard enough for many students. Some students can’t always be expected to take on part-time work alongside an unpaid internship, nor can they be expected to fund it. Unless you’re from a well-to-do background, or have family living within a commutable distance, your chances are stacked against you from the start.

Yet we clamour over them greedily, feeding on the scraps of the promise of a glittering career. Hundreds of people apply for each internship, because we are told we have to. We are told, by our universities, by employers and by the media, that if we haven’t decided what exactly we want to do with our lives by the time we’re 21 then our prospects are worthless. Take journalism for example. Most MA courses and graduate schemes expect a full CV of internships at local and national papers as well as being editor of a student rag - nigh on impossible if you've only decided journalism is for you in your final year.

Unpaid interns aren’t thick. They are highly skilled graduates who have slogged for three years to get a good degree. They are young people, accomplished in their academic fields, ready to enrich the job market. Yet the pressure of unpaid work is holding them back from achieving the heights of which they are capable. It’s creating a world in which bright young things become downtrodden, impoverished and used.

In the end, the ones who say graduates don’t deserve internships are right. We deserve so much more.

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