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KU students on why they would (or wouldn’t) take on unpaid internships

By Hannah Roberts Mar 23, 2018
Unpaid internships can cost students up to £1,000 a month. Photo: REX

As students, we often hear horror stories about unpaid internships, all the while being encouraged to go and do one for ourselves.

We need to get our “foot in the door”, but what happens when that door slams shut, leaving us out in the cold with no money in sight? 

A recent study by The Sutton Trust, entitled ’Internships – Unpaid, unadvertised, unfair’, calculated that an unpaid internship in London can cost more than £1,000 a month even when travel costs are provided, as a result of increasing rent prices and inflation.  The study was released in late January 2018. 

The Trust found that “that the high cost of living in London is likely to be pricing out young people from families on low and middle incomes, especially those living outside of the South East, or those whose families cannot offer them a room for free.” 

British minimum-wage legislation means that many unpaid internships are illegal. However, there have been no prosecutions for organisations who take on interns for free. 

KU third-year graphic design student Millie Tyler said: “If you got a job in a cafe or in an office you would learn as you work. You have training and still get paid whilst doing your training. Imagine if that cafe or office turned around and said, ‘We aren’t going to pay you because you’re learning from us.'” 

She added: “I wouldn’t personally take an unpaid internship because I have rent to pay. I also see it that the creative industry is benefiting from young creatives coming into the industry with a fresh new approach on design.”  


Interns are entitled to be paid

The Sutton Trust says that interns are entitled to be paid the National Minimum Wage if their work is “of value to their employer, and the intern has set hours and responsibilities”  because they  ”are likely to qualify as an employee under UK employment law.”

The report quoted a poll by YouGov which said that “84% of respondents questioned did not know that companies who offer unpaid or expenses-only paid internships may be breaking the law.

“Therefore, many employers may be offering unpaid internships without realising they’re breaking the law, and many interns may be working unpaid without realising that they are entitled to the minimum wage”. 

Liz Emerson, co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation which researches the disadvantages faced by young people, said: “While charities are exempt from the National Minimum Wage legislation because much of the monies raised by donations should be used for primary charitable purposes, some have taken advantage of young people desperate for work experience.” 

Ieuan Lewis, a third-year KU graphic design student, said it is essential to weigh up the financial cost of unpaid work experience with the value of the knowledge available to be gained. 

“I don’t think I would personally want to work for a studio where travel isn’t covered as you need to think about what your worth is to a company. It is very much a two-way deal and both parties need to benefit fairly.” 

However, the attitudes within offices need to change to accommodate young people coming through to them, regardless of whether or not they’re being paid to be there. 


“After they said that, I left a week early”

Shani Kotecha, who graduated from KU with a journalism degree last year, said that on one placement at a magazine company her mentor was not understanding of her mental health issues. 

She said: “I was struggling, and one person basically asked me why I started the internship if I wasn’t sure I could handle it. After they said that, I left a week early. 

“It was pretty difficult because taking the internship was a huge step for me, and I was really proud of myself for trying. For them to then question me like that was a little bit heart-breaking. I felt really embarrassed – I left without saying bye to anyone.” 

“A more senior member of staff texted me after apologising for my quick exit and saying I was welcome back any time.” 

The Sutton Trust report added that there are plenty of additional costs expected to be paid by interns during their time at an organisation. 

This may include interns feeling the need to buy new clothes to fit in with the environment, pay to go to after-work social events that they have been asked to attend, or even simply travelling to and from London at the start and end of a placement. 


Interns should work for free, not graduates, Powell said. 

In 2013, the chairman of creative design charity D&AD Dick Powell said in an interview with Dezeen that graduates should “work for nothing”, and “make tea, carry bags, and learn, learn, learn”.

However, when the article provoked furious backlash from readers, Powell said in a follow-up interview with Dezeen: “There are no circumstances where working unpaid in any capacity is acceptable on any level.”

“It was certainly not my intention to infer working for free… I should have made it clear that I was referring to student internships and not graduates.”

Tyler said: “It sounds like the only thing (Dick Powell’s) interns are getting is a foot in the door, to the kitchen. I may as well just work in a cafe and at least I get paid for it. It also perpetuates the creative industry into a middle-class elite space, which is inaccessible for people that can’t afford to do it.”


Students should call out organisations who do not pay 

Emerson said: “Enlightened organisations, are starting to offer free accommodation, in order to attempt to widen access to these valuable internships to students who don’t have the luxury of family or friends with accommodation in the capital.”

“Students should vote with their feet and use their collective weight to call out those organisations who are taking advantage of young people’s enthusiasm and wishes to succeed. That means challenging organisations, and individuals, looking for a bit of cheap labour.”

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