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Why not work for free? The case against long-term unpaid student placements

The graduate labour market is highly competitive and students are increasingly being encouraged by schools and Universities to get work experience. However, Confederation of British Industry (CBI) research shows that one-third of employers are either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied by the amount of relevant work experience that young people now have. The CBI goes on to recommend, that: “All employers should consider how they play their part in making sure every young person has an experience of the workplace and world of work while they’re in education”.

Though work experience for university students remains invaluable long-term work placements should be paid. At present, the UK law has various loopholes that allow people to work for free for prolonged periods. For example, students completing long-term work experience as part of their degree are not covered by National Minimum Wage legislation. Moreover, even where regulations are breached, prosecutions with respect to unpaid placements are non-existent.

The recent ‘Unpaid Work Experience (Prohibition) Bill’ was tabled to address some of these loopholes and restrict unpaid placements to 4 weeks’ maximum duration. It comes off the back of critical research on unpaid internships by the Sutton Trust and the conclusions of the Taylor Review which stated: “it is clear to us that unpaid internships are an abuse of power by employers and extremely damaging to social mobility”. Indeed, the Prime Minister himself has supported a tightening of the regulation on unpaid placements.

Despite remaining central to this critique, students have largely been excluded from the debate. Guidance from the NUS/ UCU dates back to 2011 and, whilst long-term unpaid placements have been questioned, it overlooks the specificities of student placements. The Office for Students also appears to have remained silent on the matter. The relative silence around long-term unpaid student placements remains worrying.

Universities often promote unpaid placements through their websites and support them via careers service and academic staff resource. But universities should reflect on this position.

As a University tutor who teaches on a short term work placement model, my initial thought when first taking on the course was that asking students to undertake unpaid placements for up to 12 months was exploitative. Exploitation, however, is notoriously difficult to define. Three of the 11 well-established International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicators of forced labour – withholding wages, debt bondage, abuse of vulnerability – could arguably be applied to heavily indebted students working for free for 12 months in the hope this will maybe give them a step on to the career ladder. By internationally agreed labour standards then, long-term unpaid work experience looks at best exploitative.

Although students can still access a loan whilst engaged in long-term unpaid work experience many struggle financially. The Sutton Trust estimates, for example, that the cost of taking up an unpaid internship is £1,093 per month in London and £905 per month in Manchester. In addition, students still pay (albeit reduced) fees whilst on their unpaid placement years. Many universities attempt to cushion this financial precarity by offering partial bursaries through hardship funds; a laudable action but one illustrative of a wider problem.

There is certainly a time and a place for unpaid work experience and universities do offer short unpaid placements of a month or less should students wish to get relevant work experience. The option is there to work for free in a time-limited fashion, and unpaid placements should simply stop there. There is no convincing case for long-term periods of unpaid work beyond the argument that that students should be free to choose.

In times of economic crisis, there is a danger that as some employers attract students to work for free, others will follow. I do not want to see, in an age where work experience is being expanded at universities, long-term unpaid opportunities becoming the norm. Universities must discourage long-term unpaid placements by asking employers to think again, or better, by collectively excluding them from their promotional materials. Universities have a duty of care towards students and promoting or supporting long-term unpaid work placements compromises this.

Well-off students are in a better position financially to take up unpaid placements, and so they remain discriminatory. There is some evidence to suggest that unpaid placements can put those from disadvantaged backgrounds at further disadvantage relative to graduates with parents in professional occupations or who attended private schools. In the context of the push for greater social mobility and a levelling-up, the idea of long-term unpaid placements looks anachronistic.

There is also little popular support for long-term unpaid placements. According to the Sutton Trust, three quarters (73%) of interns support a ban on unpaid internships over 4 weeks long (the figure is 69% of all graduates).

Of course, a counter to all this is to say: ‘if a student wants to work for free for 12 months, why should they be prevented from doing so? Students should be free to choose’. Given the choice, though, there is little doubt that students would rather be paid for long-term placements.

The choice of working for free is one made within severely constrained circumstances; circumstances that universities, employers, unions and the state should certainly begin to address in light of the emphasis now placed on the importance of work experience whilst in education.

Dr Sam Scott is a senior lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, UK. He is author of the 2017 book Labour Exploitation and Work-Based Harm.

Image credit: Adam Fagen via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)