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What’s the national minimum wage for students?

By David Malcolm

Wednesday 10 February 2016 Info and advice

Many students work for low pay, are apprentices, or take up internship opportunities, so knowing about the national minimum wage is important. You may have heard of it, but aren’t sure if it applies to you. Here’s an overview of the rules.

What is the national minimum wage?

The law says that almost all workers in the UK aged 16 years old or older must be paid at least the national minimum wage applicable to their age. The government sets this as an hourly rate, and you must be paid at this level or higher, even if you’re working on commission or per item completed, or you’re a trainee or on probation. 

There are a few exceptions to the rules (one of them relates specifically to students), and the rules aren’t very clear about when (or even if) interns should be paid the minimum wage. Even so, the vast majority of student workers should be paid the minimum wage.

What are the current national minimum wage rates?

The current national minimum wage hourly rates. These rates change every April.

  • 25 and above: £8.21
  • 21 to 24: £7.70
  • 18 to 20: £6.15
  • Under 18: £4.35
  • Apprentices: £3.90

The apprenticeship rate is paid to apprentices aged under 19 years old. If you’re 19 or older and past your first year you must be paid at least the worker rate that applies to your age. For example, an apprentice aged 22 who has completed the first year of their apprenticeship is entitled to a minimum hourly rate of £7.70.

What counts as employment?

Any worker who’s under a contract of employment must be paid at least the minimum wage. The contract doesn’t have to be written – it could be spoken or implied – and an employer can’t avoid the legal obligation to pay the minimum wage by asking you to say you’re self-employed.

Essentially, if you have someone who can tell you at any time what to do, where to carry out work or when and how to do it, it’s likely you count as a worker for the purposes of the minimum wage, and you should be paid the applicable rate or more.

What about internships, volunteering and work experience?

There are a few exceptions to the rules, which concern students who are undertaking work experience, an internship or voluntary placement. It’s important to understand that there’s no blanket exemption for these activities. Some count as exempt, so your employer doesn’t have to pay the minimum wage – but by no means all.

If you’re undertaking a placement lasting no more than a year as part of your further or higher education course (eg a sandwich year), your employer doesn’t have to pay you the minimum wage. If your placement is unpaid you may be eligible for student support – ask an adviser at your university, college or students’ union for information.

However, if you’re undertaking other work experience or a placement that doesn’t form part of a course, you ought to be paid the minimum wage if you’re a worker as outlined above. The important point is whether or not your duties are voluntary: if they are, an employer offering a placement can’t treat you as they would an ordinary worker.

Similarly, internships aren’t necessarily exempt from minimum wage rules, and an employer offering an internship must pay the minimum wage if the position counts as employment. Simply calling a position an internship isn’t enough – the employer must demonstrate that there’s no obligation to work and that all duties are, in effect, voluntary. If you’re required to keep specified hours of work, and/or carry out specific duties, the internship may count as employment and therefore you must be paid the minimum wage.

If you’re a voluntary worker for a charity or a similar body such as a hospital (eg you work as a charity shop assistant) you don’t have to be paid the minimum wage, but you might be paid for reasonable expenses. However, as with internships you can’t be obliged to work – the position must truly be voluntary. If not, you should be paid the minimum wage.

Volunteers more generally are also exempt from the rules, so don’t have to get the minimum wage.

Can my employer use tips to make up part of my minimum wage?

It’s illegal for employers to make up the national minimum wage in whole or in part through tips. If you receive tips your employer must be able to show that you’ve been paid at least the minimum wage and that the tips are additional to that.

What can I do if I think I’m not being paid at the right rate?

If you think you’re not being paid the minimum wage you’re entitled to, or you’re confused about your situation, you can seek advice from: 

  • Your university, college or students’ union advice centre
  • Your trade union if you’re a member of one
  • The ACAS helpline on 0300 123 1100 (Monday to Friday 8am to 8pm and Saturday 9am to 1pm)

Call the ACAS helpline if you want to register a complaint against an employer for HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to investigate. Complaints are treated in the strictest confidence and employers of any size can and will be investigated.

In 2013/2014 HMRC issued enforcement notices to employers in respect of over 23,000 workers who weren’t receiving the proper wage rate. Workers who haven't been getting the correct wage rate must receive the wages they were entitled to, so this can mean the employer making up the difference from previous pay packets. In some cases this has meant payments of thousands of pounds to individual workers. The company will also be subject to a fine of up to 100% of the underpayment.

Where can I find more information?

Official government information on the national minimum wage.

Complaint form if you think you are not being paid the correct wage.

This information was updated in June 2019. NUS provides this information in good faith and has taken care to make sure it’s accurate. However, student finance issues can be complicated, and rules change frequently. You should contact the advice centre in your students' union, college or university for support if you’re uncertain or need more help.