If you’re a student in the arts, chances are you’ve encountered unpaid internships. However, universities are stepping up to address the issue. According to Katie Mills, responsible for student enterprise and employability at the University of the Arts London (UAL), "unpaid internships are a huge problem in the creative industries and have been for a long time." The UAL, along with several other arts universities, including Falmouth, Kingston, the University for the Creative Arts (UCA), and Goldsmiths, have stopped advertising for unpaid work, in line with national minimum wage legislation that entitles interns doing real work during set hours to payment.
At UAL, the careers department stopped advertising unpaid work altogether in April 2020, after discovering loopholes in the system, such as students continuing to work unpaid after eight weeks had elapsed. At UCA, according to its careers and employability adviser, John Watts, the policy change was motivated by pressure from the student union.
Although not advertising unpaid internships may be a step in the right direction, it has created tension with some employers who believe that students benefit from them. Mills said, "We get employers phoning up saying ‘well I did an unpaid internship and it didn’t do me any harm’ and ‘my company can’t afford to pay someone but this is a really good opportunity.’" However, she added, "legally you have to pay them if they’re coming in for set hours and you’re expecting them to do set tasks. Many employers don’t know that." In some cases, companies stopped advertising internship positions when they learned they would have to pay.
Despite these efforts, some university staff members, including tutors and teaching staff, still believe that unpaid internships are beneficial. Mills said, "Some tutors have very longstanding fantastic relationships with certain businesses. Tutors will refer students to these businesses, hoping they will have the opportunity to work for that brand." Even if universities don’t advertise unpaid work, individual lecturers encouraging students to work for free could be detrimental to students’ progress.
Ultimately, the issue of unpaid internships is multifaceted and requires collaboration from all stakeholders. While universities are taking steps to combat the problem, it’s essential to educate employers and hold discussions with industry organizations.
Media students at Middlesex University, as part of a campaign unit in their syllabus, collaborated with Intern Aware to gather an impressive amount of 1,600 signatures within three days in support of paid internships. As a positive outcome, UAL will launch a graduate internship scheme, with the university agreeing to cover half of the cost of a graduate salary at the London living wage, meaning companies will only be responsible for half of the payment.
Falmouth students have the opportunity to undertake paid placements at their own institution, and many arts courses have work placements included within their syllabus as a viable alternative to unpaid internships during vacations. In fact, Freeman argues that implementing placements into the curriculum can provide students with valuable work experience without being exploited in the same way that unpaid internships do. The work undertaken by students during these term-time placements usually focuses on a specific project, and they produce a report which counts towards their final grade.
Arts universities acknowledge the pivotal issue of unpaid internships faced by many students and are eager to support their requests to terminate the practice. Watts stresses that inclusivity is vital, as not all students can afford to take on long-term unpaid work, particularly in London. Campaign manager of Intern Aware, Chris Hares, praises the universities’ commitment to promoting the employability of their students, and the fact that they are taking positive action to ensure that internships are about skill and effort rather than the ability to work for no remuneration.