Unpaid Internships Are a Joke | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Unpaid Internships Are a Joke

Comment Editor Kat Smith discusses why she will not be taking an unpaid internship and why students should not be expected to work for free

The transition between first and second year is the optimum time for fun – you still have two years until graduation, you’ve just passed a year that doesn’t count (but it’s exciting anyway) and you have a solid three whole months before you can have to think about the next instalment of your degree.

In short: this is what freedom tastes like.

I came back to university and was hit by the fact that now, the summer of 2017 is over. Second year has begun. It’s real now. I need to start thinking about my future and ensure my CV is perfect… or at least somewhat impressive.

My first inclination was to look for an internship for the summer. However, after countless searching sessions I was shocked to see how many internships only cover their interns’ travel expenses or lunches.

As if we didn’t need to be reminded again, there is monumental pressure on undergraduates now

How kind of them to offer to cover my £10 train journey and £3 meal deal - £13 a day on money I would have spent to merely get there and survive? Generosity at its finest.

10-weeks of work where they give you the bare minimum payment for your time. How is this acceptable? Well, they know that students still bend over backwards to get them, so companies still do it.

As if we didn’t need to be reminded again, there is monumental pressure on undergraduates now. We are constantly told we must gain experience before setting off into the big wide world of work and ‘reality’ (many adults like to remind us frequently that we are currently in a dreamy student world where nothing can hurt us).

This leads us to doing whatever we can to get ahead, to get that extra line on our CV or another contact on LinkedIn. A 2:1 degree, being school prefect and going to Thailand on our ‘gap yah’ isn’t enough anymore. So, even if it means we end up on losing our money and time that could have been spent with family and friends, on gaining experience that might just secure us an interview, we do it.

Of course, this expectation transcends internships. Students are under so much pressure nowadays that we cannot afford to be complacent about getting a job. We need to demonstrate and acquire the skills, we need to show that we’ve spent our university time wisely so that employers even consider us for a job. Our university lives are riddled with stress and competition. We rarely get a break from the reminder that our careers are just around the corner and there’s a lot to do to secure them.

Even though I believe that no student should have to work for free in order to gain experience of the working world, it is particularly true for those who cannot afford to live otherwise. I know that if I don’t have a paid internship next summer, I’ll have to get a job instead. I can’t afford to not make money in the three months we have off of university unless I want to be scraping through third-year. And that’s a minor case.

Our maintenance loans do not take into consideration that not all of us get extensive funding from our parents, no matter their income. Surely companies know the stereotype of being a financially struggling student is more than just a myth?

Paris Lees, a Guardian Opinion writer, explained how she ended up selling sex in order to fund her unpaid internship to get a foothold in journalism. This is not only intrinsically shocking, but also baffling that companies and the government can ignore such a clear sign that not everyone can afford the luxury of working for free. Following from that, employers then fail to acknowledge that a candidate may not have been able to afford to complete an unpaid internship. It is hard to count this as fair.

There is at least some hope for the future

Companies need to offer internships with the intention of training someone to then become a potential employee/member of a graduate scheme. Internships are an investment for a company and should not be treated as merely a favour to a lucky student.

I’m not the only one who takes this view. Recently, unpaid internships were likened to modern-day slavery in the House of Lords. Although attempts to ban unpaid internships have been blocked before, there is still strong public support for the bill. In a recent survey by the Social Mobility Commission, of the 5,000 asked, it was shown that 72% backed at least a change in the law while 42% said that they ‘strongly supported’ a ban.

This suggests that there is at least some hope for the future. There is an acknowledgement that no one should have to work for free, not even students.

Amongst many others, I cannot afford to spend my summer not earning money yet the experience is something I both desperately want and need. I am worried that internships have become a case of who can afford it, rather than who has earned it.


Opinionated second-year Philosophy student and houmous enthusiast. (@katlouiise)


17th November 2017 at 11:30 am

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