Is it time to re-examine university policies on unpaid internships?

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Universities across the UK are in their fourth consecutive week of strikes, with students suffering major disruptions to their education as lecturers walk out of classrooms. The debate centers around — what else? — money. The UCU are protesting pension reform, which they estimate could cost them up to £10,000 per year. Lecturers are not being paid for days spent striking, and Queen’s University Belfast has informed students that no fee reduction is currently being considered.

So as the strikes over fair wages and compensation for academic staff continue, is it time to talk about the economic rights of students?

In 2015, David Hyde made headlines around the world for, at the age of 22, deciding to live in a tent in Geneva for a summer. Why did he do this? As an unpaid intern for the United Nations, he couldn’t afford the exorbitant rents in the city.

Unpaid internships and volunteer positions have long been, and continue to be, a problem for young people. It is true that there are charities and community service organizations which simply could not function were it not for the dedication and sacrifice made by their unpaid staff (take the SOS Bus in Belfast, for instance). It is also true that there are organizations and businesses (particularly in the fashion and media industry) that are attempting to skirt around labor laws by calling unpaid workers “interns.”

There are increasingly a larger number of (well-meaning) organizations trying to create “win-win” scenarios: providing young people with “good opportunities” for professional experience in positions that wouldn’t have existed if they were paid.

But is this fair?

Among other things, unpaid internships and volunteer positions:

  • are often only realistic for individuals from wealthy families who can afford to support themselves (or even just take a day off of paid work to “volunteer” at an event), which reinforces class divisions.
  • create a barrier to entry for many career fields; individuals who could not accept unpaid positions find themselves less-qualified than other candidates, or are unable to accept entry-level level positions that are unpaid. (This is especially problematic in human rights and related fields, where young people are often pressured into unpaid work because it’s “for a good cause” and the organizations “don’t have money anyways.”)
  • allow organizations to displace workers in paid positions.
  • often don’t actually provide relevant professional experience or promotes the idea that young people in politics, social sciences, humanities or other non-technical fields don’t have relevant skills or qualifications.

But above all, the problem is this: labour is labour is labour. Does calling it an “internship” or a “volunteer position” or a “good opportunity” mean it is fair to not pay someone for their work?

Many university faculty and staff will often use their community networks to establish unpaid internships and volunteer placements. Students (myself included) often ask for or are excited about these placements — because they often really great opportunities for career development and our CVs.

Alone, it is difficult for students to turn down unpaid positions. So is it time for faculty and universities to re-think their policy on unpaid placements? Should institutes disseminate opportunities for unpaid labor? Should faculty ask employers to consider prioritizing or offering paid opportunities? Should universities find ways to help prevent the economic exploitation of their students?

Over the last few weeks the Student Unions at QUB and Ulster University have chosen to support UCU faculty who are striking for their pension benefits. Despite the fact that we are suffering huge disruptions to our education, despite the fact that we and our families have made enormous sacrifices to be able to attend and afford this University (especially international students), we have largely been supportive of our professors. Because we care about them, and we care about their financial security, and we are willing to advocate for it.

Should our lecturers do the same for us?

Written by

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford. www.alinautrata.com

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