Against the unpaid internship

The University’s newly announced global internship program is likely to disproportionately benefit high-income students

The University unveiled a new global internship program Tuesday. By drawing on friends, alumni and partner organizations across the world, the University plans to help place students in international internships.

These internships will last a summer or an entire semester and will span professional settings from research centers to corporations.

The opportunity to work abroad as a student is fantastic—if you can afford it. That won’t be the case for many University students. Majida Bargach, the quadrilingual director of the global internships program, has already said most of the internships will “probably be unpaid.” An unpaid internship in the U.S. can be a financial strain for American students; an unpaid internship in another country carries with it new costs, including travel.

Who are the students who will be able to afford an unpaid internship abroad? Probably the same students who can already afford to travel with their families. As for the students who, for financial reasons, come to the University with little or no international experience, this program will not help them.

The fact that the program seems likely to give a boost to students who are already economically “ahead” is not a reason to dismiss it wholesale. More foreign exposure is valuable for all students. Many of our peers will work in multiple countries over the course of their careers. Forging professional connections abroad is a way to expand employment horizons while also learning more about the world. The University is wise to capitalize on its friends and partners in other countries: the global internships program widens students’ job prospects while also offering them opportunities for cultural and intellectual development. It combines the best of the University’s career-services efforts with the school’s academic mission.

And Bargach seems to recognize that access is a problem. She told UVA Today she is considering offering grants and pursuing fundraising efforts so that less well-off students will be able to participate.

The University is not wrong to launch such a program. On the contrary: if the program is a success, it will help many students immeasurably. The underlying problem is not that the University will place students in unpaid internships but that unpaid internships have become a labor norm. And the underlying party at fault is not the University but the many firms that employ young people for no compensation: no money, no benefits and no legal protection against harassment or discrimination. Between housing, travel, food, professional clothing and other expenses—especially if the internship is in an expensive city like Tokyo or Paris—an unpaid foreign internship could cost a student five figures.

The University offers a few scholarships for students doing unpaid summer internships, such as the Larry Simpson Internship Scholarship ($2,200; only rising fourth years are eligible) and Parents Committee grants ($3,000 each, for second and third years doing public service internships). Upping the number of internship scholarships could allow a few more students to participate in the global internships program. But these scholarships are partial fixes for a flawed system. The University should not have to provide internship stipends. That responsibility should lie with the employer.

The arguments against unpaid internships are many. Critics of unpaid internships have argued, variously, that: a) such arrangements are inherently exploitative; b) they damage social mobility by requiring a period of unpaid work as a prerequisite for entering an industry; c) they displace paid workers; d) unpaid interns often lack accountability and get saddled with menial tasks, and so on. The arguments in favor of unpaid internships are also numerous. Some contend that unpaid internships are a win-win: that such arrangements let students gain experience in a professional field and potentially set themselves up for a future job.

In some countries, such as China, it is difficult for American students to hold paid internships because of visa rules. But in countries where it’s possible, we believe that employers should pay interns for their work.

The University will surely promote the global internships program when discussing the school’s career services, global initiatives and summer opportunities. The University thus benefits, in a minor way, from the practice of unpaid internships. Because we’re left wondering: would these friends and alumni and partner organizations be so willing to hire University students if they had to pay them?

Published January 15, 2014 in Opinion

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