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Unpaid Internships – it’s still not what you know

Sally Holt, wonk-aspirant and former aspirations coordinator at a Hartlepool school, argues that the continued practice of unpaid internships is undoing all the good work by the education sector to make life chances more fair.
This article is more than 5 years old

Sally Holt is the Policy Officer at The Brilliant Club

Alex* is eighteen years old and has just started her degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at a university in London. She’s articulate, verbose and imaginative. She aspires to be a journalist.

In pursuit of this, she created and edited her school’s magazine back in Hartlepool. She writes extensively and reached the final stages of a national competition aimed at those three years older than her for a recent article. Clearly she is good at what she does. She also, like many talented young people, cannot afford to undertake unpaid internships throughout the duration of her undergraduate degree.

Why not? Because she must work in order to support herself through university; the cost of living in London significantly exceeds the maintenance support she receives through Student Finance England and her parents cannot cover this shortfall.

Alex has defied all educational disadvantage statistics to progress to undergraduate study. She is the embodiment of research by the Sutton Trust, the Social Mobility Commission and more, all of which draw the same conclusions: even when all other factors are controlled for, graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to gain a professional job and will earn less than their affluent peers.

Shut out

Moreover, particular professions – journalism included – are dominated by the affluent, the privately educated and therefore, those who can afford to work for free in the early stages of their career. Over half of leading journalists were privately educated and 54% went to Oxbridge. Nationally, just 7% of children are privately educated and fewer than 1% of gradates are from Oxbridge. Journalism is by no means the only career to be dominated thus; 74% of the top judiciary hail from independent schooling, two thirds of senior doctors and 71% of high ranking military officers.

Disadvantaged children are less likely to study academically rigorous subjects at GCSE. They underachieve by over half a GCSE grade per subject and are less likely to progress onto A Levels. They are then less likely to progress to higher education and they are exponentially less likely to attend a highly selective university. And even when they have defied every trend, statistic and prediction, they suffer from continued disadvantage in the professional labour market.

Alex has been offered multiple unpaid internships with several well known organisations. However, she needs a part-time job in order to afford her living costs whilst studying. Fifteen hours of unpaid labour a week would leave her unable to actually attend her university classes – the maths isn’t hard. The Sutton Trust found that a six month unpaid London internship costs a minimum of £926 per month and called for the national minimum wage to be paid to all interns. But that was back in 2014.

Without work experience, Alex is all too aware that the chances of ‘breaking into’ journalism in 2016 are minimal. Breaking in… an apt phrase for a profession where those who don’t have reams of high quality unpaid experience are made to feel like outsiders. They shouldn’t be there? Or they simply can’t.

Nothing says cross spectrum support like the Daily Mail and the Guardian finding common ground, and both have supported ending unpaid internships. Yet little progress has been made; affluent young people are still able to undertake work for free, bankrolled by parents who not only understand the importance of, but are able to provide this crucial support. The statistics are clear: investing in this work will reap long term rewards and much improved career progression. One cannot help but wonder how much this is down to eliminating from the field those who cannot afford to even begin the competition.

The social network

Underpinning this is a much wider issue. Unpaid internships are successful because they widen social networks and offer the opportunity to build relationships. Whether you’re making tea or dominating bylines, the chance to interact with those in the profession provides an insight into their world; the expectations, the jargon and the process. I cannot think of a career in which an individual with experience of a sector would not have an advantage. Unsurprisingly – and understandably – those who have contacts within an industry are more likely to be able to secure employment in their chosen field.

We tell disadvantaged children to work harder, aspire higher and overcome challenges. What we omit to mention is this base truth: educational disadvantage is truly a lifelong barrier to success.

We need fundamental change to recruitment into the top professions, including the outlawing of unpaid internships and the creation of paid roles for these jobs. Until we make this commitment, journalism, as well as so many other professions is missing a huge talent pool. As far as I can see, your ability to write, articulate, heal or lead is not inherently linked to your parents’ wealth. It is our society which makes it so, and so we can only hope that the government backs Alec Shelbrooke’s Private Member’s Bill to end unpaid internships.

*Alex isn’t her real name. But if you are a professional looking for a paid intern in the media sector, drop me a line. Oh wait… is that social network?

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