Unpaid student work placements should be laid off

Universities’ ethics oblige them to pay their own interns, so why do they permit their students to work many months for free, asks Sam Scott

December 4, 2020
An intern sighs
Source: iStock

Unpaid internships are finally receiving much-needed scrutiny in the UK, with the prime minister welcoming efforts to close loopholes that allow people to work for free for prolonged periods.

The Unpaid Work Experience (Prohibition) Bill, currently going through parliament, seeks to restrict unpaid placements to four weeks, on the grounds that – as the 2017 Taylor review of modern working practices put it – “unpaid internships are an abuse of power by employers and extremely damaging to social mobility”.

I heartily agree with that sentiment. But I was surprised to hear that student placements are excluded from the proposed legislation.

I am certainly not against students getting work experience while at university, and I accept the case for unpaid placements of up to a month. But longer-term placements should always be paid, whether they are in the UK or abroad. And I say that as a tutor for a work placement module who is obliged to oversee long-term placements (sometimes unpaid) as part of his professional responsibilities.

Exploitation is notoriously difficult to define, as I discovered when I wrote a book on it. However, many readers will be aware of the International Labour Organization’s 11 well-established indicators of forced labour. Three of these – withholding wages, debt bondage and abuse of vulnerability – could arguably be applied to heavily indebted students working for free for 12 months in the hope this might give them a leg-up on to the career ladder. Unpaid placements, in this light, look exploitative.

Of course, UK students can still access income-contingent maintenance loans while engaged in long-term unpaid work experience, but many still struggle financially. Educational charity the Sutton Trust estimates, for example, that the cost of taking up an unpaid internship is £1,093 per month in London; in the current academic year, students can borrow up to £11,672 in maintenance.

In addition, students still pay (albeit reduced) fees while they are on their 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.

I have seen no convincing case for long-term periods of unpaid work beyond the argument that students should be free to choose undertake them. That position, however, falls down because the choice is often made within the context of constrained financial and personal circumstances. As the Taylor report made abundantly clear, offering such an option is unfair when not everyone can afford to take it.

Interestingly, and frustratingly, I have been unable to find any recent data or opinion articles about long-term unpaid student placements from either the National Union of Students or Office for Students. Nor do work-focused blogs and journals have much to say about the matter: a case of missing something right under one’s nose, perhaps?

Universities have a duty of care towards their students; it could be argued that promoting long-term unpaid work placements compromises this. After all, universities generally do not offer long-term unpaid work placements in their own organisations for ethical reasons, and they often caution against them at a policy level.

In times of unprecedented economic crisis, in particular, there is a danger that more employers will resort to asking students to work for free, and others will follow. It is important that universities do not facilitate such a race to the bottom and that only those offering paid placements are promoted and supported. Meanwhile, those firms offering long-term unpaid placements must, at least, be asked to think again for the reasons outlined above – or, better still, collectively be excluded from participation in university programmes.

After all, the economic crisis wrought by the pandemic will also sharpen the spotlight on the government’s levelling up agenda, which is all about boosting social mobility, particularly in deprived regions. In that context, long-term, unpaid, widely unaffordable placements look increasingly anachronistic. Now is the time to work purposefully towards their elimination.

Sam Scott is senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Gloucestershire, and author of Labour Exploitation and Work-Based Harm, published by Polity Press in 2017.

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Reader's comments (4)

"I have seen no convincing case for long-term periods of unpaid work beyond the argument that students should be free to choose undertake them." How about this? Forcing ALL placements to be paid might reduce the number of placement opportunities because not all employers can afford to pay them. Especially with all the economic crisis that the lockdown has produced. Giving students a choice makes better sense than a 'one size fits all' solution. It is also interesting to me that you think the duty of care of universities for students is all about money... it is not. If it were, all volunteer work would be exploitative too.
Nobody should be forced to work for free. But nobody is actually being forced to work for free. If somebody agrees to this, it's their own fault. When I was a student, I chose to do only a single internship - and negotiated that the employer would at least provide accommodation and a public transport pass for the duration of the internship, a deal that worked for both of us. What I don't get is why everybody seems to want to hold universities responsible for the bad choices their customers are making in relation to third-party businesses. Duty of care is a construct that shouldn't exist in the market for adult higher education.
"What I don't get is why everybody seems to want to hold universities responsible..." This is because they cannot blame the customer, can they? The customer is always right. This is true for politicians too, as these customers (and their nagging parents) are (future) potential voters. Add to that the widespread anti-intellectualism in the UK and beyond, and the ideological faultlines within HE (just think of the acticist academics who make it their mission to carry all the worlds' burdens upon their own shoulders), and you have in universities (and schools to some extent) an easy target and bogeyman for all sorts of systemic/structural problems that the press, politicians and public love to whack as an Ersatz activity.
*activist (please provide an edit function THE)


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