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Opinion | Unpaid internships perpetuate inequalities amongst students

Are unpaid internships worth it? Victoria Pope explores how unpaid placements cause further inequality by being exclusive to only those who can afford to work for free.

By Victoria Pope, Third Year, English

Throughout their time at university, students are frequently reminded of the value and importance of gaining professional experience before entering the graduate job market. For many this can take the form of an, often unpaid, summer internship. However, by placing emphasis on a scheme not all students can afford to undertake, are unpaid internships worth it or do they simply create further inequality due to their exclusivity?

It's important to differentiate yourself from the competition, and there is no denying the value of gaining industry experience before entering the graduate job market. According to Student Ladder, two thirds of the top one hundred employers currently offer summer internships to penultimate year students. With the sheer number of unpaid internships available, proving their popularity and solidified place within student communities, these placements help students gain career knowledge, form connections with industry experts and boost their CV. And, because further study is becoming an increasingly unrealistic option for many students considering the current cost of living crisis, internships should be the perfect way to stand out – right?

Perhaps not, as many students find themselves unable to afford to work for free for the duration of an internship, which can often last for months at a time. In line with the rising cost of food, rent and bills in recent years, most students have been forced to adjust their lifestyles and budgeting. Considering this, along with the failure of maintenance loans to keep up with rates of inflation, the need for part-time work both in term time and over summer has become a necessity for many. This has consequently made the prospect of giving up wages to work for free unthinkable.

Photo by Nicola Barts/ Pexels

Research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has found that over three-quarters of students are “concerned” that rising costs may affect how well they do in their studies. Whether this be due to the extra responsibilities of working alongside a degree or missing out on opportunities such as unpaid internships, it is apparent that the playing field is far from even for students from different financial backgrounds.

Even disregarding the sacrifice of an income, internships have many hidden costs that make them inaccessible to students struggling financially. When taking into account potential costs of travel, accommodation, and buying ‘office-friendly’ outfits, that are often absent from an undergraduate’s wardrobe, the price of what on the surface seems to be a free opportunity quickly begins to rise. Undertaking a university degree is already a huge financial commitment, with students prepared to pay off their loans for many years to come. Therefore, is it really fair to expect them to spend even more money just to give themselves a fair chance at securing a job after graduation?

Having to spend money to set yourself apart in the job market can only create greater inequality amongst students, as only those that are financially stable are able to commit to an unpaid placement. Research by IFS Think Tank found that only a fifth of graduates who were eligible for free school meals went on to be in the top 20% of earners, highlighting a clear link between financial background and career performance. With many individuals from low-income families already feeling at a disadvantage to their peers, inaccessible, unpaid internships can only serve to increase this gap in experience and achievement, rather than provide equal opportunities for students.

I therefore believe that it is time for universities and employers alike to re-evaluate the importance they place on unpaid internships, that in practice are only available to a certain percentage of students. Particularly in light of the UK’s current cost of living crisis, it is time to demystify the all-important internship and recognise them for what they are – an exclusive opportunity that serve to increase inequalities amongst students.

Featured Image:John Schnobrich/Unsplash

Would you take up an unpaid internship if you were offered one? What are your thoughts on the topic? Get in touch @EpigramPaper.