One of the country’s most senior academics has admitted unpaid internships are here to stay.
Speaking at the launch of a report examining student prospects for finding employment, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) board member Professor Sir Tim Wilson acknowledged the system was not the most "desirable" option. But he told The Huffington Post UK “there are certain industries where unpaid internships are the norm [and] it is difficult to move away from that”.
Against a background of rising youth unemployment, Professor Wilson’s words will not be welcome news for graduates and school leavers alike. He admitted internships were “intensely competitive” and now part of an “extended interview process”.
This view runs counter to those of Nick Clegg, who has stated that the widespread practice of unpaid interns should be scrapped. The deputy prime minister was accused of hypocrisy when it emerged later that the Lib Dems were recruiting unpaid interns.
The former vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire had been asked by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to examine how universities could best work with business.
Prof Wilson's comments on internships are bound to frustrate Liberal Democrat government ministers, such as Business Minister Vince Cable, who commissioned the report. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has previously criticised unpaid internships for “rig[ging] the market in favour of those who already have opportunities”.
The senior academic called for the government to show “commitment and leadership” in developing ties between universities and businesses. He said government policies “have been critically important in the development of successful business-university collaboration”. This process is important, Wilson added, in order to “generate the wealth necessary for a healthy and prosperous society”.
"We owe it to our grandsons to ensure that they have the skills for next year, not years ago," he continued.
There should be a “systematic and frequent” assessment of what skills are needed by students for the work-place, according to Wilson. The professor cited analytical and deep thinking abilities as examples of “employability skills”, before observing “to say that there is a generic set of skills [for graduates] is wrong”. Students need to appreciate how to “apply [their] subject into the business environment”.
“Sometimes they don’t realise the skills they’ve got,” he complained.
There should be a greater emphasis on “work-integrated learning”, Wilson said. He added undergraduate students should be able to do an internship during their course. The government should offer companies giving students paid internships a “tax credit or grant”. Meanwhile, Wilson called for universities to subsidise unpaid internships with funds from OFFA “rather than condone a policy that could inhibit social mobility”. He made clear that this was “a policy to be determined by individual universities”.
According to Wilson, there is a “significant misalignment” between graduates’ aspirations and the number of jobs actually available. He said that students need help understanding “the opportunities that are available” in smaller businesses and in self-employment.
Meanwhile, universities and science Minister David Willetts expressed disappointment that self-employed graduates weren’t given sufficient recognition as having “proper jobs”.
“Sir Tim has produced a comprehensive and timely report. The challenge now is for universities and businesses - with government - to work together to drive forward these recommendations to ensure the long term world class competitiveness of our economy” he added.
Dr Malcolm Skingle, from GlaxoSmithKline, underlined the importance of the report. “We cannot be complacent… we need to innovate our way out of the recession,” he said.
Gus Baker, from Intern Aware, said:
"The government recognises in this report that unpaid internships are unaffordable for young people who lack major support from the Bank of Mum and Dad. Therefore, it must take steps to level the playing field, rather than holding out for piecemeal charity from university funds. If it fails to enforcement the minimum wage, only the children of the wealthy and connected will be able to access these opportunities. Responsible universities must also recognise that unpaid internships are not in the interest of their students."
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