Paying to work for free

There is a worrying trend emerging for graduates, some of who are ‘paying £8000 for internships’ (Kenber 2009).

Twenty-five years ago you graduated qualified to do the job you had studied for. When you got a job, you anticipated job security for life. Then came the paid trial internships that you hoped would develop into a permanent job. Following that came the work-for-free internships. Now you get to pay to work for free at an internship. Some internships are being auctioned to the highest bidder.

Potentially these developments could call into question the value of education and the resultant qualification. Could it be that there is a trend towards a form of employer apprenticeships? Commercial courses are directly challenging the higher education sector. Shillington College was set up by the founder who couldn’t find anyone with the right skill set to employ. The commercialisation of the sector continued with initiatives such as Tesco’s scheme to support university education with Clubcard points (BBC 2007). Some universities within the higher education sector are slow to respond to these types of change. ‘As higher education costs ever more by way of tuition fees and as it presents itself using the instrumentalist rhetoric of “Get a degree, get a fancy job”, it is to be expected that with such commodification and commercialisation comes consumerism’ (Palfreyman 2010). With consumerism comes customer dissatisfaction and litigation culture. Palfreyman describes the autonomy of higher education as a ‘refuge for scoundrels’ where ‘academics need not ever be accountable to anyone for anything’ (Palfreyman 2010). The downturn in the economy, government cutbacks, a cap on fees and customer dissatisfaction, are finally being felt with universities now playing catch up with new efficiency programmes and a focus on the student experience.

There has been some recent media debate as to whether a university education increases your chances of higher earnings over a lifetime…or not (as is implied). The government says yes it does. But graduate and media stories are countering this idea with some seeing an arts education as being ‘an expensive library ticket’ (Ross 2009).

This disenchantment is expressed by one such design graduate. ‘I really hate the ‘work for free’ idea. It’s nothing but pure exploitation and means that only people with financial backing can break into an industry. This combined with uni fees means yet again the class system becomes ever entrenched, when expanding HE [through initiatives such as widening participation and lifelong learning] was supposed to break down class barriers. What do we all do our degrees for then? And the irony is that in most jobs you will never come close to using the level of skill you developed at uni. Degrees have become totally devalued now. An A-level leavers’ job 10 years ago is a ‘graduate job’ today. There are now too many third rate unis offering third rate degrees to people who will be let down by them’ (Tite 2010).

The government strategy is to focus on the courses that ‘deliver high quality training that meets the needs of learners and employers at a time when public finances are under pressure’ (Hardy 2010). Institutions will be expected to provide statistical evidence of ‘pass rates and future employability’ (Hardy 2010). All food for thought as we develop core curricula and review components such as study choices and what Personal and Professional Development constitutes. There is a growing tension with students feeling caught between an increasingly expensive higher education system (that is perceived as not paying off) and poor employment practice. Education can’t necessarily guarantee employment but it can offer the highest quality education experience preparing students for the best possible opportunity in the workplace. That is our responsibility to our students.

3 This is Kent, Education Supplement