The cost of free internships

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So, you’re in second year, and you’re desperate to bag yourself the perfect summer internship that will pack a punch on your CV come graduation. You go online, search for internships relevant to your field of interest, and find a program that promises an incredible experience. You’re confident that your abilities match their requirements, and you’re about to click the ‘apply button.’ Only then do you notice, in the small print, that the company in question are only willing to reimburse you for ‘reasonable travel costs’ and you will not be paid for the time, often a period of around twelve weeks, that you are working for them. Looking around, you notice a pattern of 10 week internships, the majority in London, and the majority of which are unpaid.

Unfortunately, I have found myself in this exasperating position many a time. Nevertheless, frustrating as it may be, these companies are not breaking any laws. According to the website, if an intern is classed as a worker, then they are normally due the National Minimum wage, which from April this year will increase to £6.15 for 18 to 20 year olds, and £7.70 for 21 to 24 year olds. However, since internship workers are not classed as ‘workers’ unless promised a contract of future work, they are technically classed as ‘voluntary’ workers, and thus are not owed anything, save perhaps some lunch or travel expenses. Of course, there is the material cost gap this creates, if we are not paid for our work, how are we expected to pay for our accommodation, food, and other necessities? I would also suggest that the ubiquity of free internships are really costing us far more.

Some may argue that, despite the inconvenience, we should merely accept this state of affairs, take it on the chin, and perhaps get a part time job in our second term to save for the costs of our internships in the summer. In theory, that is a great idea. In reality, it perpetuates an understanding that students should relentlessly sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to ‘get ahead.’ Being at a top University, in your second and third years, the workload is immense, and while many students have part time jobs, their purpose is often to subsidise current living costs and to afford rent where student loans may have left them short. According to a recent Sutton Trust study, an eight week internship in London averages around £2000 in living expenses. If you are between the ages of 18 to 20, as the majority of second years are, in order to save £2000 working at a minimum wage part-time job as of April, you would need to work just over 325 hours, on top of the number of hours you may need to work to fund yourself in the present. This would severely limit the amount of time in which to effectively study, affecting your university performance. Not only this, but what time does that leave for socializing, seeing family, or God forbid, actually relaxing?

The most commonly cited impact, and the one with which I sympathise the most, is the effective isolation of those who do not have access to a great amount of expendable income, from achieving their full potential, gaining access to coveted internships and potentially highly coveted graduate jobs. There are students whose parents may be willing and able to foot the cost of a full summer London internship. This means that many students who can afford the internship, albeit not all, are generally from a more ‘well off’ family. Regardless of whether the student from a poorer background is just as skilled and has just as much, maybe even more potential, they are essentially barred from so many opportunities on the basis of their financial position. We are already placing far more pressure on our universities to ensure that those from a poorer financial background are not excluded from attending the best institutions, but what use is this if employers are unwilling to do the same?

Many of these opportunities are marketed as incredible learning opportunities, with this being the promised return for the money you spend on living costs to undertake the internship. But is there any real way of knowing this internship will actually be useful to you in any way? What protection do you really have against the reality of the experience you were promised being far less than you were promised? The answer is very little, and you may end up having spent a great deal of money for very little valuable experience.

Moreover, in the most basic sense, just because the internship experience is most often legally classed as ‘voluntary’ does not mean we are organising bake sales and making the filing cabinets look pretty. Littered across so many internship advertisements is the sentiment that you will be expected to ‘hit the ground running,’ ‘manage your own projects’ and to ‘work like the average (insert company name) employee’ would. This being said, why does it make any sense that we should not be paid as much as the average employee would? To me and so many others, the very fact that these internship advertisements make such claims only to add that you will be unpaid for your work is incredibly bold and immensely insulting. Big companies are quite simply exploiting the significant need amongst students to have an internship on their CV before graduation.

As a final word, we are fortunate to attend a university which recognises this issue, and offers some financial support to students who are in receipt of a bursary, to aid with travel and living costs for internships and work experience known as the ‘Travel2Interview’ bursary. While arguably this is not the university’s issue to solve, their contribution could make the difference if you are dead set on a specific internship and you’re just short of cash.

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