The scramble to push students towards internships is troubling

With employability at all costs now dominating HE, we seem to be ignoring the very real problems of a system built on free labour and work placements, says Anne Hewitt

Anne Hewitt 's avatar
17 Aug 2023
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Impostor syndrome can strike even in virtual internships
A student takes part in a virtual internship

Around the world there is a perception that real-world work experience is important to help tertiary students transition into graduate work. For some students, such as those seeking to practise as lawyers in South Australia, this is a condition for professional accreditation, while for veterinary science students in the same jurisdiction it is a degree requirement. Other students, meanwhile, are responding to industry pressure, with 2019 survey evidence from the UK suggesting that 40 per cent of companies are “not very likely” or “not at all likely” to recruit graduates without practical experience. More recent UK data showed that nearly a quarter of graduate recruitments were hired as a result of an internship placement with the same company.

Internships have also been enthusiastically endorsed by many Australian universities and our government as a way to help students develop relevant skills to transition into the graduate labour market. As a result, academics and careers advisers are often encouraging students to get out there to try to secure internships to maximise their career prospects.

This means that many Australian students are doing unpaid work as part of their courses. A 2016 national survey of 3,800 Australians found more than half (58 per cent) of respondents aged 18 to 29 had done unpaid work at least once in the previous five years, with nearly a third (29.9 per cent) of those placements being part of a tertiary education course. There is also data suggesting that more than a third (37.4 per cent) of Australia’s university students are doing courses that involve real work as part of their tertiary studies. In 2017, that amounted to 451,263 work-related learning experiences. And this is not a uniquely Australian phenomenon. In 2023, an EU survey of 26,334 people found that 78 per cent of those aged 18 to 35 had done at least one internship, with just under half of those being unpaid.

There’s a downside to internships that stakeholders are reluctant to discuss. Namely, not all students are able to secure or complete them. Those who can’t afford to do unpaid work or lack the connections to secure a placement, or who face intolerable conditions at work, may be left behind. This can be a tragedy for the individual, whose dreams of work in a particular industry might be over before they’ve even begun.

And we know this happens. There is statistical evidence that not all Australian students are participating in academic internship placements equally. A 2016 national survey of unpaid work found that young Australians (18 to 29 years old) from lower-socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds, as defined by parents’ highest level of education, were less likely to have completed an internship, as were those who lived outside state capital cities and women. This confirms Universities Australia data, which found that First Nations students, those from low SES backgrounds and students from regional and remote areas were much less likely to undertake work placements as part of their study.

A significant consideration for students is the cost associated with completing an internship, which may consist of travel and accommodation to attend the placement, as well as potentially sacrificed income. These are not insubstantial obstacles, as the following quote (from 2021 research funded by ACEN) from a student facing a degree requirement to undertake a work placement demonstrates: “I was really worried about how I was going to eat, basically…So once I kind of realised that I wasn’t sure how I was going to feed us, I was like: ‘Holy crap, I’m in trouble here.’”

But money is not the only obstacle facing students. Discrimination on a variety of grounds, including sex, race, age, disability and religion, may also limit some students’ capacities to secure internships. Not to mention the fact that participants are also vulnerable to discrimination or harassment during a placement, which may prevent their completing it.

In addition to the personal costs for students struggling to secure and complete unpaid or low-paid placements, the proliferation of internships has the potential to have a much broader impact. It risks entrenching existing disadvantage and limiting diversity in professions. If the phenomenon continues to expand, it may begin to displace paid employment and undermine labour standards, as employers replace paid workers with a revolving door of interns who are treated as “cheap, dead-end labour”.

Calls for reform with regard to traineeships

The European Parliament recently endorsed a proposal to amend the EU 2014 Quality Framework for Traineeships to ensure all trainees in EU countries are fairly remunerated. On top of this, more European nations have increasingly tough regulations regarding internships. For example, France banned open-market internships in 2014 and now only allows regulated internships, which are completed by a university student as part of their studies. Belgium, Estonia, Italy, Lithuania, Portugal and Slovenia have also implemented specific laws requiring payment for open-market traineeships.

The EU’s response to concerns about unpaid internships highlights the need for Australia to consider its position. Australian policies fail to regulate internships in any comprehensive way and, in fact, encourage placements for tertiary students to be unpaid, so they fall into the “vocational placement” exemption in the Fair Work Act 2009.

Should we recommend students do internships?

The situation puts Australian academics and careers advisers in a quandary. There is evidence that completing an internship placement can have employment benefits for individual students. But we also know some without professional connections will not be able to secure an internship, some will be discriminated against or harassed, and some will have to endure extreme sacrifices to complete a placement.

In this context, should we be encouraging students to build internships into their tertiary experience, or suggesting the personal and social costs are too high, even if that might limit students’ prospects?

At this stage it seems unlikely that internships will cease, or will cease to be important. Therefore, all those involved in tertiary education need to consider how their engagement can reduce negative outcomes and maximise benefits. This might involve seeking out and promoting financial supports students could access, assisting students who may face disadvantage to locate placements, encouraging flexible and part-time placements and/or suggesting other ways students can network with their future profession.

We should also advocate for change in stakeholder attitudes to internships. As well as acknowledging the benefits, we need to encourage a nuanced perception of work experience that recognises that full-time work without pay is an obstacle some students cannot overcome. Change, or at least flexibility, is required unless we want an education and employment system in which requirements to complete unpaid work exclude the disadvantaged from careers they desire and in which they would excel.

Anne Hewitt is an associate professor at the University of Adelaide Law School, Australia.

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