The debate about unpaid work experience and internships is always framed wrong. Making a profit – in other words being paid a salary – should not be a student’s first priority. In fact the crucial lifeline for students looking to gain work experience, especially those whose parents do not own a flat in central London or the cash to pay out hundreds in trains fares or hotels, is making sure that reasonable expenses are covered.
Unfortunately we live in a morally bankrupt age. Unaccountable, it would seem, to the laws which protect the ordinary minimum wage worker at McDonalds or Sports Direct, many of this country’s most profitable and successful companies refuse to meet their ambitious interns half way and remunerate the costs involved with working and indeed living in London. It is just one of the many scandals to which politicians and business men simply lift their shoulders as if somehow it is not their problem, that it is a responsibility they abdicated a long time ago.
The problem, I suspect, lies in the same laissez-faire toxicity which saw politicians turning a blind eye to the behaviour of both Mr Murdoch’s newspapers and the reckless and grotesque morality of the financial industry: there is simply too much vested interest. Doing anything that might upset companies that make a lot of money, like forcing them to pay a few extra thousands pounds a year towards their interns’ expenses, might affect the way their CEO’s vote or the amount of money they decide to donate. Worse still, such companies might take their business elsewhere (though most agree such threats are hollow and unfounded). It would seem then from a political point of view, very little is going to change the government’s attitude to work experience and internships.
At Loughborough, however, one of the few universities which does not operate like a branch of Tesco and does appear to treat its students with the individuality they deserve, crucially ensuring that students who take up part time work for them are paid a living wage, there is perhaps something that can be done. With the opening of a new campus in London – which we paying £9,000 probably helped, at least partially, fund – comes an opportunity to open not only an extra careers base in the capital but to provide students with affordable, if not free, short term accommodation.
If the university has bought the media centre, can it not also buy some of the accommodation used by the athletes during the Olympics? With an additional careers service and a branch of the library working on the London campus, Loughborough would be in a unique position to support their students during short term work experience placements and long term internships whilst also allowing those from the poorest of backgrounds to truly be on a level playing field with those from wealth and privilege. Indeed in their access arrangements with the Office For Fair Access, Loughborough defines two of its missions as:
Opening a campus in London self-evidently fulfils the first of those statements but it also satisfies the second in more subtle ways. Giving all Loughborough students a fair chance to gain work experience in London without being severely out of pocket sends out a clear message which individuals and professions interested in economic and social development would do well to listen to: offering to reimburse your interns’ expenses pays off in the long time. A socially mobile society is one that creates a better, more efficient and more meritocratic workforce.
While I’m sure it will be a great research venture for students taking their Masters and PhD’s we must also make sure that Loughborough in London is also there to support hard-working undergraduates in getting the jobs they deserve from a £27,000 degree.