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By Alice Lighton
Internships were once a kind of glorified work experience. Instead of making tea every day for a week for high-powered executives, investment bankers, or journalists, you spent a month incessantly filling the kettle, photocopying the Yellow Pages, and losing the will to live.
A lot has changed. According to figures released in July from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, there is now one job for every 70 graduates. 78% of graduate employers are on the look-out for graduates with at least a 2:1.
Numbers of students wanting to intern with a company or business have rapidly escalated. Internships are often an avenue into a job at the end of a degree. Most are unpaid. Interning is increasingly becoming the preserve of the wealthy student.
Ben Lyons, a 3rd year student at St. Catz, part-runs the campaign group Intern Aware. It has spawned the Facebook group “Interns must be paid the minimum wage”.
“Working for free is impossible for the majority of graduates”, Lyons said. “We cannot have a situation in which young people are only able to start careers with the support of the Bank of Mum and Dad”.
Interning for free is harder for students at Oxford, he said, who are not allowed to earn money during term.
Lyons set up the campaign on behalf of fellow Oxford students who were dissatisfied with their intern experience. One such student at St. Catz said: “I interned at a PR company for eight weeks over the summer. It cost me a thousand pounds in lost earnings. I felt like a general dogsbody. It’s not fair that for real work I received no pay at all”.
Another is frustrated that her free internship at a PR company will not even cover her expenses.
“They won’t buy me the odd coffee, or occasionally arrange that they will cover my lunch if we all eat together. It’s costing me £6 a day in travel, more in food and a ton in rent. I can’t afford to carry on like this”.
Rates of pay depend largely on the sector offering the internship, and vary massively.
Political commentator epolitix.com says that “only one percent of parliamentary interns are paid minimum wage” and 450 interns are working 18,000 hours a week for no money at all.
The most profitable internships are often those in finance.
One second year Oxford student secured a ten week internship with the investment banking firm UBS, which pays £45,000 pro rata.
Interning in this sector is often the way into full-time paid work.
On their website, JP Morgan say “Our philosophy is this: if you’re good enough to succeed on our application process, then you’re good enough to assume real responsibility on the job”.
Many interning students studying at Oxford did not believe that their pay matched their level of responsibility.
A typical response from an anonymous unpaid student was: “The work which I am doing is definitely proper work, not shadowing”.
In an interview with The Sunday Times over the summer, Julie Margo, Head of Research at the think-tank Demos, used this as an argument against paid internships.
“The best way to ruin opportunities for thousands of graduates would be to insist that internships are paid”, she said. “Paying interns would ultimately lead to internships being conflated with entry-level jobs”.
“Who would pay a useless graduate when you can hire a recession-hit 25-year-old?”, she added.
Speaking on the forum Interns Anonymous, Christopher Try, head of a Chartered Accountancy firm, holds the opposite view. “Business should certainly not rely on charity from and exploit young and vulnerable people by getting them to work for free”, he said.
“An intern, working for free, is an embarrassment to any proper business. It is shaming and nothing short of exploitation”.
Not all interning students feel as “vulnerable” as Try suggests.
Worcester student Will Grundy, who interned at a PR and Communications firm for 8 weeks, being paid just expenses, said he “was not at all taken advantage of”.
“I absolutely loved my internship”, he said. “I put the work in and got a result”.
He did suggest that successful job applications are often decided on a “who you know, rather than what you know” basis.
Speaking on the same issue raised in Alan Milburn’s report into social mobility last year, then executive chairman of ITV Michael Grade said such nepotism based on “who you know” was “grossly unfair”.
Ben Lyons’s Intern Aware campaign has garnered support from Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband, as well as the four other candidates for Labour leadership. Labour MP for Oxford East, Andrew Smith, has also signed a pledge to end unpaid internships, as has the former MP for West Oxford, Evan Harris.
Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said last week that it was time to change the way that media interns are paid.
“We will play our part in the campaign to bring exploitative employers to book, using minimum wage legislation to steadily change internship culture from one of exploitation to one of genuine learning opportunities”, he said.
In March, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority reneged on its promise to make the minimum wage compulsory to parliamentary interns.
Teddy Hall student Jack Hackett believes that the current unpaid internship system is hindering social mobility.
“Internships essentially operate to (unknowingly) widen the gap between the more and less economically prosperous and exacerbate the difficulties for students and/or young professionals whose families can’t support them through the process of gaining enough experience to eventually become wealthy people for themselves”, he said.
Intern Aware’s Ben Lyons agrees. “It goes without saying that it is wrong if affluent graduates are first in line for the best career opportunities”, he says.