The Vice-President of the NUS has criticised Nick Clegg for allowing members of his party to recruit unpaid interns despite his pledge to abolish unpaid placements.
In his pledge the deputy prime minister described these internships as “the almost exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected.”
Danny Grufferty, the NUS Vice-President for Society and Citizenship, also condemned Lynne Featherstone, Minister for Equalities and Criminal Information, after she advertised for an unpaid intern on the W4MP (‘work for an MP’) website.
“It is rank hypocrisy for the Equalities Minister to recruit unpaid interns while her party leader is telling others not to.
“MPs of all parties must take a moral lead on this issue and commit to paying all their interns a living wage.”
The Sussex Careers & Employability Centre expects all employers to offer at least the minimum wage of £4.98 per hour (for 18-20 year-olds) to interns from the university.
Of the 400 opportunities currently advertised on their website, all are paid, except a small number of placements lasting less than four weeks. The university itself occasionally recruits (paid) interns.
Linda Buckham, director of the Centre, was keen to stress the value of internships: “In the current jobs market it is becoming increasingly important that students are able to offer more than just a degree.
“Work experience is a valuable opportunity to gain new skills and develop your career thinking.
“But we do try to demonstrate to employers that the investment of offering paid internships will increase the numbers and standards of applications and result in a more productive work experience placement.”
Lily Robertson, an Economics student at Sussex, interned with the National Magazine Company for four weeks – unpaid – and agrees that such opportunities can enhance employability.
“The placement was invaluable to me for the experience of working in such a high pressure environment.
“But coming out of university with simply a degree doesn’t seem enough anymore.”
However, there was a negative side to Lily’s internship.
“One red carpet event at a hotel in London, which I was required to attend, was an amazing opportunity to meet people.
“But I was required to buy a certain type of outfit and either stay out in London all night or sort out accommodation in the city since the event ended well after my last train home.
“I got into around £500 of debt after just four weeks.
“I certainly believe that unpaid placements should be illegal as the work you undertake is extremely intensive and nearly always requires just the same level of skill that any paid employee would have.”
The legal position is rather more complicated.
Anybody who is actually working (rather than just shadowing somebody) is required to be paid the minimum wage.
An exception is made for people on placements as part of their university course.
A further exception is made for volunteers who, providing they are not contracted, may work for any kind of organisation for free under the law.
It is on this basis that Lynne Featherstone and other MPs (including shadow Business secretary and former employment lawyer Chuka Umanna) recruit unpaid interns.
This loophole has been disputed by HM Revenue & Customs, which is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage.
At the same time, a recent report from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit said: “Around half of the employers interviewed warned that graduates with no work experience will struggle to find work.
“This is a timely reminder to students that they need to have something more than academia on their CVs.”
Linda Buckham gave similar advice, urging students to use the Sussex Plus website.
The site gives students a personal webfolio space where they can showcase their achievements in their degree as well as paid or voluntary work.
“Employers increasingly look for wider life skills such as leadership, personal initiative and team-work.
“If you’re thinking, ‘I don’t have many skills,’ then now is the time to develop them through Sussex Plus!”