The Scottish Government has been urged to provide support for unpaid work experience interns amid concerns over the impact of the rising trend on equality.
The National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland has called for the Government to offer financial help to the poorest students and graduates to undertake internships through supported volunteering or bursaries.
Liam Burns, President of NUS Scotland, said: “Internships and volunteering can offer students vital experience giving a great advantage in getting a job after graduation. However, all too often getting these opportunities is about who you know rather than what you know. We can’t continue to allow internships to be dominated only by people from certain backgrounds or with large enough bank balances.
“The businesses and organisations that take students on clearly have a responsibility to ensure they are not being exploited as interns and volunteers. Taking time out to work for free is obviously something that most students can’t do without financial support and even for those that can, many interns find themselves exploited as free labour, rather than helped to learn new skills and gain useful experience.
“It’s clear that greater support from government is required to ensure that students [and graduates] from all backgrounds, regardless of money or contacts, can access the opportunities offered by internships and volunteering. Whether through supported volunteering or through bursaries for the poorest students, we must do more to make sure interns are not exploited and that opportunities are there regardless of who you know and where you come from.” Graduate unemployment rose by 44 per cent last year in the UK. As graduates compete for jobs in a tough labour market, many are turning to internships to boost their employability.
The UK Government has also taken forward an internship programme, offering graduates placements with businesses.
But with many of those opportunities unpaid, there is growing concern about the effect on equality and access to the professions, as those who cannot afford to work for free are excluded.
A specialist in graduate careers in Scotland also raised concerns about the rising number of unpaid internships available.
Barbara Graham, Director of Careers Service at the University of Strathclyde said: “I feel that an honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s pay. I know that certainly I have concerns about the proportion of unpaid internships which are available at the present time… because that seems to me to raise big equality issues.
“It flies in the face of Alan Milburn’s approach which was about concerns about certain professions where people are coming, not exclusively but predominantly, from certain classes within society. He was concerned that there should be good access to the professions, not dependent upon one’s wealth or social status but upon one’s merit and obviously the careers services are great upholders of equal access.” Labour’s higher education spokesperson Claire Baker MSP also called for more support for interns: “There are a lot of benefits that come with an internship but you need to recognise that there are some students that would have difficulty accessing internships because of financial pressures and I think if the Government could do anything to support those students then they should do.”