Student internships work, but they need to be paid

Sarah Carter explores what government could do to ensure that students internships are fairly paid

Sarah Carter is the Policy and Public Affairs Officer within the Vice-Chancellor’s team at Bournemouth University. Previously she worked in widening participation as an Impact Analyst and as Policy Advisor within a FE quango.

In today’s troubled times it would be easy to pause the campaign for student interns to be paid.

Yet at second glance this issue is more important now than ever before.

Over the years a procession of parliamentarians has taken up the banner and attempted to change the law. There are currently two parallel Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) before Parliament proposing that work experience over four weeks duration should be paid. The Commons Bill is scheduled for (another) second reading in January but as is the fate of many PMBs both of them appear to have stalled. The HE sector is also focused elsewhere, dealing with the pandemic, Brexit, and the Government’s critical and interventionist approach.

The proposal to pay students for their work treads in muddier waters than might at first be perceived. Should student nurses and physios be paid for the placements which are integral to their course? How much return on investment do unpaid 6-week summer internships offer the employer? What is clearer is that students undertaking a traditional sandwich placement who spend 30 weeks or more working for an employer should be remunerated. Members weren’t wrong when they called these practices exploitative.

Getting your house in order

The Government itself doesn’t have the best track record of paying its interns (31 per cent of Westminster staffers worked unpaid for an MP). The topic is further clouded by the argument that interns are already covered by minimum wage legislation –if the student is defined as a worker (has a contract) then the employer should be paying. In these cases an unpaid or under-paid student can raise their case with HMRC and be paid arrears. In practice this doesn’t happen. And the Minister’s words in the last debate were carefully chosen: ‘internships must not be used as a pretext to avoid paying qualifying workers the minimum wage’… ‘Being a worker depends essentially on whether there is a contract—to work or perform services for a reward’. The minimum wage legislation is a get out clause and easy for employers to work around.

It is not clear that these students would be paid under Alex Cunningham MP’s Bill. He said:

I would like to make it clear that the Bill does not apply to placements where a university course requires it. These are often unique circumstances in which the student is funded through other means, so it is not affected by my Bill.”

I suspect what this means is that the Bill is intended to include sandwich placements which are not practical training integral to the programme – i.e. it would cover a traditional placement year on most courses, but not the practice placements undertaken by a nurse or a midwife.

I take issue with the “being funded through other means” – there’s a very limited placement year student loan but that’s a discussion for another day, as is the separate and very current discussion about whether students on health and social care programmes should be paid while on ‘the front line’ in practice placements.

Enabling choice

There would be unwelcome consequences to requiring all placements to be paid. Some employers would cease to offer opportunities, at least at first. Fewer opportunities means more competition. Some might only offer four-week stints to avoid the rules.

There is a clear challenge for social mobility here. The HE sector has a duty to tackle disadvantage and the impact on social mobility from a worthwhile placement is notable – if the student can afford to take the placement up. Many can’t.

According to DLHE data, at Bournemouth University students who undertook a placement, including underrepresented or disadvantaged students, were:

  • 27 per cent more likely to complete their course;
  • 18.8 per cent more likely to achieve a 1 or 2:1; and
  • 42.7 per cent more likely to attain highly skilled graduate level employment.

The placement was a leveller – there was no difference between disadvantaged and advantaged students in the above outcomes. However, the likelihood of a student undertaking a placement year increased with family income. Students who took placement years had a median family income 12 per cent higher than students who did not. This effect was exaggerated in some subject areas more than others. The family income of students who took up placements in engineering and technology was 37 per cent higher – not surprising given that many placements in this area are unpaid.

Commuter students were also less likely to undertake a placement year and sector evidence suggests that low income students are more likely to be commuter students.

Some sectors offer very few paid positions leaving many students with no access to industry experience for their chosen profession. Universities do all they can to promote and support their students to access a paid sandwich placement. Yet students themselves, or at least those that can afford it, are clear that they want to have the choice of an unpaid option. They understand the value of the experience they gain, it brings new insight when they return for their final year, many a dissertation has been inspired by the year in industry and the boost to graduate employment from a year in industry is well known.

If all placements over four weeks were paid this would increase access for disadvantaged students and these students would benefit from the improved degree outcomes and the graduate employment boost. A win-win for social mobility.

The impact of Covid-19

Asking overstretched employers who are making their own permanent staff redundant to continue to offer placements and pay for them during the Covid-19 crisis may seem a step too far. There is no doubt the pandemic has had an impact on the availability of placements. Tristram Hooley’s recent blog spells out the overall decreases in number of opportunities available. Placements were cancelled, the work available was less diverse, less attractive and less advantageous (students didn’t see patients face to face, workshops they were due to deliver were cancelled, team bonding was limited to faces on a screen, pub networking was a no-go, and extras such as on-the-job training were no frills delivered by the quickest remote method).

Of course, this wasn’t the story for all. Placements during Covid mirror what is happening in the real world. Nutrition placements didn’t dip while the furloughed population baked bread, the IT sector adapted well to virtual working with students reporting valuable experiences, and remote working isn’t unusual for unpaid ecology students spending their days in the wild and archaeologists distanced on a dig. Companies and students thought outside the box to attract opportunities and adapt.

Anecdotally we’ve seen an increase in unpaid placements and, in some programmes, the number of students choosing to access a placement is down. I could provide a shopping list of changes in how students have shown resilience, staff are more agile, and advice and support has altered. For students on or about to go on placement now the biggest new issue is uncertainty. Students are hampered by international travel corridors or not knowing whether their January placement will be in a locked down area of the UK. Life is unpredictable, students cannot reliably plan, the uncertainty has an impact on mental health.

So in this turbulent environment is it right to require the employers who are still offering placements to pay? I think it is (and many employers are doing so). I think it is time for the sector to move forward, ideally with pay for all students on a long placement. It would be a positive step for a generation of graduates who are facing some of the poorest employment prospects. Lower income students who would benefit most from accessing the graduate employment boost from a placement come from the lower income areas earmarked for levelling up initiatives. It feels an easy win for Government – which would be requiring the employers to pay.

But there are difficulties in the detail. Should there be exemptions for non-profit organisations?. Should some SMEs be exempt? Perhaps. However, another factor we’ve seen during Covid is where an organisation sheds a permanent paid staff member to offer a very similar role on a voluntary basis instead – an ethical ouch. It is also true that not all sectors are equal culprits and the Government’s response to the Taylor review committed to engage with sectors where unpaid internships were prevalent.

Are there alternatives?

There are alternatives to full pay. If a student works within an exempt organisation (such as a charity or a small business) they could be given access to a full level of maintenance loan (the same as they receive whilst studying). There could be a limit on internships of 25-30 working hours per week (to enable the student to top up with paid part time work). Employers could also be strongly encouraged to offer other support such as meals, accommodation support or realistic commuting costs.

However, as the MP put it when he presented the Bill: if there is a real job to be done, organisations will find the money to pay someone to do it. Furthermore, if there are sector skills gaps or claims that universities aren’t equipping graduate with the needed skills it is right that industry is unwilling to play its part in shaping their future workforce?

In recent years the Government has proven itself ready to get tough with universities to deliver the changes Government wants to see. Now it is time for Government to put on the armour and push changes in industry. Adequate payment for students on long placements is the best solution, but if not they could set clear expectations of the support to be provided to students. If levelling up is a real priority for the Government, placements are a winning place to start.

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