Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Universities wrestling with internship issues and the plight of the unpaid intern

Universities mean well and and are looking for work experiences for their students, but they are finding themselves facing increasing criticism recently, according to a cover story by Moira MacDonald in the latest issue of University Affairs magazine. 

It's not just a question of paid versus unpaid in many fields (and not just in magazines where unpaid internships are commonplace) but what the true educational value is. While employers may argue that mentoring an intern represents a cost to the company, universities are increasingly wary of being party to exploiting their students, displacing regular employees or failing to observe labour laws. 
The Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers, representing university career centres as well as businesses, issued an official statement in the spring of 2012 advising members against posting unpaid internships unless these met a set of criteria reflecting common labour law standards and ensuring educational value. This was after members started noticing “a significant jump” in unpaid internship postings and “in spaces that traditionally had only been paid,” says CACEE’s executive director Paul Smith.

Still, universities should think twice before adopting blanket policies that ban the posting of unpaid internship positions outright, says Nancy Johnson, senior director of student learning and retention at Simon Fraser University and an associate editor of the Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships.

Doing so means “you’ve eliminated an awful lot of learning opportunities for students, some of which they may be happy to do unpaid,” especially in the not-for-profit sector, Dr. Johnson says. Her university does not allow the posting of unpaid internships with for-profit companies but does allow them within the voluntary sector.
For instance, at Ryerson University, about 20 per cent of students still choose unpaid placements, often because they are so keen on working in a particular niche, and even though universities may make such work experience optional as part of course work or a degree. The key is structuring them properly, says the story, having clear policies and monitoring them (something that critics of routine and serial internships often say doesn't happen).  

[illustration by Leif Parsons]

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