Exploitative and Unfair: UK Universities Take a Stand by Banning Advertisements for Unpaid Internships

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A number of leading British universities are taking it upon themselves to help their students secure fairer work experience, either through refusing to endorse unpaid internships and/or enforcing an outright ban on their advertisement on campus.

The University of Nottingham’s (UON’s) Careers and Employability Service states that it will not ‘handle any vacancies that…do not pay the legal National Minimum Wage (except for voluntary opportunities with a registered charity, not-for-profit organisation or community groups in the United Kingdom, or overseas organisations)’. It also makes clear that there should be no obligations for unpaid work experience as well as a ‘clear commitment in advance from the employer of what the candidate can expect to learn from the placement.’ Ultimately, the Service maintains that unpaid internships are ‘not a fair opportunity for our students’.

Mike Dore, the UON Students’ Union’s (SU) Equal Opportunities and Welfare Officer, similarly maintains that the SU ‘does not support unpaid internships as they pose a barrier to students who cannot work for weeks with no income’, and advises students to ‘be cautious when looking for work experience and to question the ethics of the companies who offer these internships’.

Nottingham’s ban on advertising unpaid internships is actually one of the strictest, comparable to policies adopted by the University of Essex, the University of Leeds and the University of Manchester. Other universities such as the University of Edinburgh, the University of Oxford and the University of Sussex, are slightly more flexible in their commitment to banning unpaid internships as these universities allow the advertising of unpaid internships that last four weeks or less.

The reasoning behind the flexibility in policy and endorsement of unpaid internships by some universities seems to be largely due to the fact that most universities are able to subsidise work placements through grants or negotiation. Whilst others simply believe that it is not their place to advise students against accepting unpaid internships.

However, some critics argue that it is their place because there are many drawbacks to the grants system and negotiations cannot always be reached with employers. Furthermore, recent graduates are usually not eligible for internship grants and even those students that are eligible, are not necessarily guaranteed to receive one. For example, 36% of grant applications by UON students in the academic year 2011-2012 were unsuccessful.

For the academic year 2013-2014, it is unknown how many students will be successful in their grant applications for unpaid internships, but it is worth noting that the University’s work experience grant terms and conditions are currently under review as a result of changes in funding. The effect that this may have on the success of applications is yet to be established.

Emily Metcalf

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2 Comments on this post.
  • Susan Stedman
    1 October 2013 at 09:36
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    Hi Emily,

    Just a slight amend to what is written above!

    The University of Essex Internships Office has a very strict policy on unpaid internships – we don’t accept any unpaid internships of any length and we respond to clients asking to promote them with the following information:

    We don’t dictate exactly what an internship should look like, but we do ask that the Internship should be a genuine paid* undergraduate or graduate level work opportunity, which includes an element of learning and development for the intern.

    *Internships are subject to National Minimum Wage Regulations, and therefore an employer must as a minimum pay an intern to National Minimum Wage, however we would encourage employers to offer a rate of pay suitable for the calibre of candidate and the level of work undertaken.

    The University of Essex Internships Office and job board policy is that we do not manage or advertise unpaid extra-curricular internships.

    Our policy on unpaid internships is underpinned by the following key principles:

    – Most unpaid extra-curricular internships (i.e. outside of the students’ course) are illegal as they breach National Minimum Wage legislation.
    – All Internships promoted by the University of Essex Internships team should be accessible to all our students and graduates, including those unable to work for free
    – Unpaid Internships can further disadvantage and therefore discriminate against already economically disadvantaged students who are unable to work for nothing
    – By restricting opportunities to those that can afford to work unpaid, an employer is significantly restricting their recruitment marketplace and their access to many talented individuals.

    Interns have been able to claim back pay in the courts where they have completed an internship, and have been able to prove they met the definition of “worker” status as defined under National Minimum Wage Legislation – in addition by offering something in return i.e. references, lunch etc. you are even more likely to be in breach of this legislation – ironic though it may seem – please do look into it if you can.

    As a University, we do not want to encourage an Internship culture that disadvantages a large percentage of our students and graduates.

    We do recognise that unpaid internships exist, can provide useful experience, and that they are common in many industries, but where interns are doing work they should be paid, and as a University service we are choosing to make a stand against the culture of unpaid internships in the UK so that interns are no longer forced to see an ‘opportunity’ to work for nothing as a ‘great opportunity’.”

    • Emily Metcalf
      30 October 2013 at 22:35
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      Hello Susan!

      Thank you for the amendment – it sounds like a very positive policy, which will help students to find suitable and accessible internships. I congratulate it!

      Kind regards,


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