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What’s happening in the murky world of student internships?

Arguably one of the biggest, yet perhaps most subtle indicators of how British society has changed in the last few decades is the rise of the student internship. What was a rarity twenty years ago is now considered the norm, and for many a requisite step in following their chosen career path. Although there is undeniably more pressure on some students than others – an internship before beginning your final year of study is par for the course in vocational degrees such as Economics, Engineering or Law, and across the board at Oxbridge students feel that a summer placement is expected of them – such opportunities put students of any discipline one step ahead and allow them a chance to determine whether the fields they are considering joining are right for them.

Most would agree that students need internships much more than the companies need to take them on, and it seems this hasn’t gone unnoticed by big business. An increased trend in what many deem to be exploitation of young workers has led to a wave of student protests and government action aimed at outlawing unpaid internships within the last five years. But it seems that this has had a minimal impact on internship culture, and as such in many areas still only the elite find it possible to secure the high-power internships which will give their future careers a much-needed boost.

Unpaid internships have been outraging many for a while, but seemingly in recent years one even less credible practice has risen in popularity – that of asking the internships themselves to pay for the privilege of working.

There are many companies established in the UK and across the globe who work in such a way. Generally they function like a headhunting agency, matching up students with vacancies and arranging the placement in return for a fee. Many based in the UK start from as much as £3000.

The directors of these companies, such as CRCC Asia and Standout Internships, say that having such programmes on their CVs helps students get paid positions in the future, and that the fee is worth it. While this may be the case, it’s difficult not to see this simply as businessmen making profit from a desperate situation.

It’s near impossible to see how students without wealth could afford to pursue such an opportunity. Although some get by on a combination of savings and student loan, those who successfully apply for these programmes often have a large amount of support from their parents. If, as increasingly seems to be the case, the most impressive internships are to be secured in this way, those whose families cannot afford to assist them will be shut out of the best employment opportunities and the market will suffer from a lack of diversity.

One such organisation is City Internships, a programme linked with the Guardian which offers placements in London, New York, Sydney and LA. Operating in a range of fields, the company charges a small enrolment deposit and then begins searching for openings and organising interviews. Although the scheme is doubtlessly a huge success for those who undertake it, with sixty-seven per cent of interns being offered full-time employment at their host companies afterwards, there is still a sense of opportunism on the part of those organising the placements. The full extent of the costs isn’t initially clear – an optional ‘accommodation and meal package’ brings the total to over £5000 but at this stage it isn’t even clear that flights aren’t included – and consequently there is a real feeling that these programmes are exploiting already desperate students.

Another bizarre trend is selling internships as part of charity auctions. In most cases these placements have been created expressly for the charity, meaning that opportunities are not being directly taken away from those who can’t afford to bid. However, this US-imported practice of offering the best placements to the people who can spend the most could be said to be creating an unhealthy culture in the UK job market, and encouraging the attitude that interns are expendables who can be made to jump through any hoop to get experience.

As a student, sustaining yourself through an internship is hard enough without these additional financial burdens. For a start, the majority of placements with field-leading companies are in London, putting those from other regions or without a friend’s couch to sleep on at a massive disadvantage already. But arguably the biggest obstacle for a student looking to boost their CV is the prevalence of the unpaid internship. It goes without saying that students from wealthier backgrounds will often find it easier to pursue such opportunities if their families are willing to give them financial support – a recent NUS survey indicated that such students were three times more likely to have undertaken an unpaid internships than their counterparts from poorer backgrounds.

2011 saw an increased opposition to unpaid internships, marked by a series of student protests and culminating in a government-issued code of best practice stating that companies taking interns on for six weeks or more should pay them the national minimum wage. There are potential legal sanctions for those who fail to comply, but in reality this action taken by the government does little to assist students, as national minimum wage legislation does not cover internships undertaken by those in full-time education.

Many think that the solution to this epidemic of unpaid student labour is to require universities to provide financial support for summer internships. At first glance this is an ideal outcome for everyone; students would gain the experience they need to get jobs, resulting in increased employability stats for their school and, in turn, a league table boost. But in reality, we have to remember that universities are already being squeezed financially at the moment. It’s unlikely that many could afford such a mammoth expenditure.

The University of Edinburgh offers some assistance in this area. Schemes such as the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund offer bursaries to students with plans to pursue interests abroad over summer, and seminars such as Erasmus Plus are geared towards helping students secure internships financed through other means. Ultimately though, this is still a very small step and does little to tackle the bigger problem.

What’s clear is that some form of intervention from educational bodies might at least help combat the disparity in both quality and quantity of internships between different academic fields. While a host of rewarding placements can be obtained in more vocational and structured industries such as mainstream banking, where national minimum wage regulations are more likely to be followed, arts students can face a real challenge finding fulfilling employment in the summer months. Internships in areas such as media – popular amongst arts and humanities students – are regularly unpaid, meaning that students wanting to follow such a career have yet another hurdle to jump. Somewhat surprisingly, the most challenging field in this regard is science. It’s very uncommon for labs to take on undergraduates, and when they do they often expect applicants to have prior lab experience, raising the question already facing many young people – how do you get experience when no employers are willing to give you any?

It seems that until the issue is tackled students will have to continue getting by however they can – be it through saving up their student loan, working a part-time job, or with the help of their parents. Although it’s clear that something needs to be done, what’s clearer is that at the end of the day a lot of students need internships to get ahead, and many would agree that it’s better to be forced to sleep on their friend’s couch for a month than to not have one at all.

Image: IntoConnection

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The Student Newspaper 2016