Unpaid Internships: Are They Feasible?


University students across the UK are expected to commit themselves to months of unpaid work over the summer, in the name of ‘experience’, is this feasible?

For many, it simply is not. It is common knowledge that students are not exactly well-off. Being burdened with thousands of pounds of debt and accommodation expenses, most cannot afford to work a full-time job for free. The NUS (National Union of Students) estimates that the average living cost for a student in the UK is £12,000 per year, which vastly exceeds the small amount of loan that students receive. For many, the summer is a time in which students – many of whom are still paying rent – can get a paid job just to afford their living expenses during the rest of the year.

According to the Sutton Trust, there are approximately 22,000 unpaid interns in the UK at any given time, and around 31% university graduates with unpaid placements. This begs the question: how are we supposed to financially support ourselves if we cannot get paid work even after graduation? As a result of this state of affairs, several twenty-somethings are now finding themselves having to move back in with their parents, until they are given the luxury of paid work. After three or four years of studying hard at university to get a job that will allow you to pay your own way, this is a very disappointing reality for graduates who find it difficult to land paid internships in their field.

The Bigger Picture

The problem here is not the internship itself; in theory it is a great idea. Who wouldn’t want to gain experience in their chosen field before jumping straight into the deep end? The problem is unpaid internships, which, quite frankly, may be considered illegal in many cases. They also increase the ever-growing gap between those who can afford to work for several months for free, and those who cannot. This creates a dilemma in the long-run, and what we may begin to find is an unequal distribution of the typically ‘sought after’ jobs, making us wonder what we are even bothering to do a degree for.

Luckily for some, certain firms offer a permanent job at the end of an internship; however this is infrequent and does little to close the gap between those with connections and those without. TNS (Taylor Nelson Sufres) conducted a survey with 697 young adults in London in 2014, and found that many internships are not even publicly advertised, leaving them open to a select few who are in the right place at the right time. In addition, young people with family members who can get them an internship, with the guarantee of a job at the end, are in a far advantageous position to those who must struggle to compete against the hundreds of other desperate students, hoping their unpaid labour will eventually land them a job in their chosen field. Unfortunately, it has become a case of who you know, not what you know.

We as a country stand up against racism, homophobia, sexism, and many other inequalities, so why are we turning a blind eye to the terrible inequalities in the workplace, and the fact that an entire group of people are essentially working without a salary?

Yes, unpaid internships can be a path to employment, but are they fair? I’ll let you decide.


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