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Now it’s not who you know, but how much you can afford.

Extending the career ladder further and
higher to filter out those less able to pay.
In a twist of perfectly symmetrical irony, the recent advertisement for a replacement chair of the Social Mobility Commission indicates that it is an unpaid position. It would be hard to make this up.
As the pensions dispute between UUK and UCU rumbles on, it looks like a playground game of ‘me first’ has started. UUK unilaterally announced that they were commissioning an ‘independent’ review of the USS pension scheme without talking with UCU first. This is clearly a childish reaction to the situation and it would serve UUK and us all better if they negotiated first.
Meanwhile, protests continue against a backdrop of multiple sources of discontent.

One such source of deep rooted discontent is the prevalence of unpaid internships for graduates that favours the few with enough money to play. They can pay to stay in the game for longer and win while employers extend the ladder. This resentment has simmered for a great deal of time and sh/could have been dealt with before now. The Huffington post reported on Monday (19th March 2018: on 'The Hidden Price of Unpaid Internships: Graduates Reveal How the ‘Elitist’ System Stopped Them Getting Ahead.' Cited is the plight of several students priced out of a job because of the internship trap. These are real cases that highlight the continuation of an inbuilt unfairness in our society. One student argues that the situation is on the “same spectrum” as modern day slavery and that: “You can’t pay the bills with a glowing CV.”
Their online poll indicates that 84% of responders think that unpaid internships should be illegal. Only 8% are neutral but worryingly another 8% believe it is a “necessary part of modern work”. This proportion fits nicely with the 7% of UK children rich enough to go to independent schools ( Independent Schools Council 2017 data). It seems that our society is seriously divided with a small group stoutly defending their position.

The testimony of students reinforces the report that came from the Sutton trust in January of this year entitled: 'Unpaid, unadvertised, unfair' ( and an article by Rebecca Montacute (January 30, 2018 'The Interns Dilemma'

The most recent data from 2010 (yes it is that urgent for the government) indicates that there are about 70,000 interns in the UK at any one time. In 2017 there were around 11,000 unpaid internship positions advertised. These covered a wide spectrum of business including working 6 months unpaid for an MP. The Sutton Trust concludes that around 40% of these are doing work unpaid. Delving into the Government’s own data from HESA, their analysis shows that around 20% of the 10,000 graduates that are carrying out an internship six months after graduation are unpaid. The simple facts are that it costs at least £800 to £1000 per month to survive, so only the wealthy can afford to do this. It seems that some employers are extending the career ladder further and higher to filter out those less able to pay.

The Sutton Trust makes three clear recommendations:

1. All internships longer than one month should be paid at least the national minimum wage

2. Internship positions should be advertised publicly, rather than being filled informally.

3. Recruitment processes should be fair, transparent and based on merit.

It is then astounding that such a plea needs to be made at all in the 21st Century!

Meanwhile, the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission, that imploded last year, seems reduced to merely tweeting such analysis. In a twist of perfectly symmetrical irony, the recent advertisement for a replacement chair of the Social Mobility Commission indicates that it is an unpaid position. It would be hard to make this up.

Employers told to please obey the law.

In response to such embarrassing reports in the media, the Government responded in February by sending letters to major companies and launched a ‘crackdown’ on unpaid internships. They will be told that they are legally obliged to pay at least the national minimum wage to interns.

This is like responding to increasing crime levels by sending letters to known criminals to ask them to please desist in their larceny and citing the appropriate laws with a reminder that there are some police around. A likely reply? Not known at this address.

The employers involved know full well that they have been sailing close to the wind on this and they really have no excuse.

The Government’s own advice for some time ( has been that: “An intern is entitled to the National Minimum Wage if they count as a worker”. There is of course a let out in some cases such as being a volunteer or work shadowing. However, the law as it exists should be simply enforced.

The Master’s degree as a proxy for the unpaid internship barrier.

If having to endure the ignominy of not being able to afford an internship is not enough, the other great wheeze designed to thwart poorer students is the Master’s degree. If an employer seeks a Masters graduate and then offers an internship, the blow is a double one. This has proved to be a lucrative money spinner for many universities that launch Masters degrees at will without adding very much, if anything, as an additional resource. They do not appear to be well regulated. The fees can be prohibitive for one to two years and a student of sparse means in England can look forward to being extended a loan of up to £10,609 “to help with course fees and living costs” ( After August 2018, they could even buy their way into a PhD that may take 4 years to complete, with a loan of £25,000. Quoting the Government rules: “It isn’t based on your income or your family’s and it’s paid directly to you”.

Think about these offers of loans for a moment. The Government has sanctioned it specifically to assist those who can get family help.

It is clear that the loans cannot possibly cover fees and living costs combined; they only “help with course fees and living costs”. Anyone embarking on this course of action will require family funds or a superhuman ability to hold down a part-time job at the same time. The whole scheme seems geared to those with some family support or savings and excludes those without. The coincidental exclusion of mature students is another ‘can of worms’ worthy of separate commentary.

The recommendations of The Sutton Trust are long overdue but the problem goes deeper into the Higher Education system.

The various routes to seeking a clear advantage through the availability of funds has for many years looked like buying a way into a position or profession. The Law profession has long required at least two years of post-graduate training in a legal practice to fully qualify. This is of course a reasonable demand on the face of it. In the past, most of these training positions were unpaid, poorly paid or even paid for and in some cases this persists. The Law Society offers some support for poorer students not deterred by the system. Currently, the Law Society Diversity Access Scheme offers hope but this may not be enough. A popular advice web site ‘All about Law’ ( offers advice for students on getting experience during and after their studies. It states that: “Pro bono work is a first port of call for many to gain some hands-on experience with real cases”. “Taking up some work during the summer breaks while you are studying, during term time, or even before your course begins adds tremendous value to your CV and provides solid proof of your interest and commitment to a legal career. There’s a huge range of jobs available with relevant legal experience, including short or long term roles, paid services and unpaid volunteer work. Here’s a little rundown of what you could be doing to boost your law CV”

Such a strategy is by no means limited to Law. Any student in any discipline or profession armed with the financial clout can ‘volunteer’ to gain experience that gives them an edge. This has been the case for a long time. For example, many would be scientists to fund their own field work or gain valuable laboratory experience through volunteering.

My own experience has shown this. When interviewed for a position in a multinational company a few years after completing my PhD (fully funded by a UK Research Council), I was openly criticised for not “travelling as a student” in vacations as I must have had plenty of opportunity to do so. The interviewer had simply no concept of turning down a chance to travel on the popular Student European InterRail ticket with friends in the summer in favour of earning money in industrial jobs to survive. This failure to comprehend the dilemma faced by me and many others is still commonplace. I declined their offer of a job.

In one of my essential paid summer jobs in the laboratory of a large industrial company in 1974, I was befriended by the soon to retire head of the laboratory. His claim to fame was telling the Chairman of ICI in 1934 to “f**k off”. Coming from a mining family in County Durham he graduated with a First Class Degree in Chemistry at Durham in 1934; having secured scholarships that exceeded his father’s wages. In an attempt to recruit him to ICI, the then Chairman, Sir Harry McGowan (soon to be Lord McGowan) had apparently offered a six-month unpaid trial position. ICI had simply lost a talent by making a very basic and erroneous assumption.

The situation may have improved since 1934 but it seems attitudes have not. If the UK is to function at the fullness of its real potential, then a deep and profound change is needed. Making unpaid internships or so called ‘volunteering’ for jobs illegal would be a good start. Making it illegal to accept an unpaid position as a means to gain some advantage in a profession would deter this activity further. Professional bodies and institutions might consider this also.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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