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The end of long and unpaid internships? Easier said than done.

By Vidya Ramesh

Thursday 4 May 2017 Student journalists

In its ‘Mobility Manifesto’ published today, the Sutton Trust has pledged to campaign for more equitable and fair employment practices for students and young people, in the aim of widening access. This includes banning unpaid internships that extend over four weeks and making sure that they are “publicly advertised and awarded on merit”.

It is undeniably one of the most coveted and competitive graduate schemes in the country.

At the same time, an acquaintance of mine on campus, who was not from the same BME-background, was allowed to undertake a “shadowing week” for one of the government ministries. When I researched the ministry to see if such an opportunity was still available, it was not stated that they offered any such placement.

The rise of the unpaid internship breeds fertile ground for nepotistic recruitment practices; it provides a fancy label for a student of privilege to come to the workplace of a family friend and put that on their curriculum vitae.

This privilege filters down from social connection to economic condition. Inevitably, only those with inherited wealth and in prime localities can access the best opportunities.

If you can’t afford to live in the centre of London, then the investment banks and commercial law firms seem both a geographical and monetary chasm away.

Want to be a fashion designer? Urban Outfitters might be the one for you, however, in a report recently published by the Guardian it was revealed that the company wanted students to work for free as interns in photographic and styling studios of its London office. We are talking about a company that reported earnings of more than $200m (£155m) last year.

National Union of Students has consistently been campaigning against unpaid internships; over two years ago the ball was set rolling in an investigation into such practices with Intern Aware Today.

What we now need is a broader cultural shift: one that emphasises formal and streamlined channels of communication and recruitment. No more nepotism, no more “opportunities” that are in reality bound by socio-economic barriers. Summer is coming, and something needs to change.


Hi there, my name is Vidya and I’m an undergraduate student reading History at the University of Cambridge. I grew up in Manchester, the birthplace of the Guardian and Suffragette movement; it was impossible not be continually aware of the power of activism, solidarity, and liberal politics. On campus I try to channel these incredibly charged ideas into practical action, particularly in regards to the welfare of students who identify as women. As a director for a student-run think-tank, The Wilberforce Society, I have overseen events on raising the participation of women in public policy, while also co-authoring a policy paper on sexual assault policies within higher education institutions. As a campaign manager for my University’s Women’s Campaign I am also organising a programme of activities to help female students tackle anxiety. In my spare time I enjoy powerlifting (still at a novice level, sadly), as well as living ethically to the best of my ability, such as by following a vegan lifestyle (#vegangainz). As an NUS Journalist I hope to raise awareness of the events taking place on campus that centre around the three concepts I mentioned before: activism, solidarity, and liberal politics. Whether in the form of an intersectional feminist reading group, to a disabilities rally outside the students’ union, you will be sure to hear it hot-off-the-press from me!