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Unpaid work is bad for business

June 30th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

The Guardian newspaper reports that in the UK figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) reveal more than 20,000 students – around one in 10 – who left university last summer were out of work six months later. This figure has almost doubled in the past four years, as has the number of graduates in “elementary occupations.”

Half of university students are willing to work for free to kickstart their career, while 40% said they would take a minimum wage position, according to research carried out by

I have worked on a series of projects with colleagues at the University of Bremen looking at a  pedagogic approach to work placements or internships and at the added value to students, universities and companies.

However, our approach is very different to the neo-liberal idea of unpaid labour as a pre-requisite for finding employment. Firstly we have been trying to integrate internships in companies within the curriculum. Secondly we have been looking at better coodination between companies and universities and at teh design of ‘rich’ internships in terms of learning experiences. At the same time we have been examining how interns can undertake projects and work which brings extra value to the company especially in terms of innovation. Our assumption is that students are paid a living wage – either in the form of a student grant or through the company itself.

It strikes me the way the UK situation is evolving everyone is a loser. In terms of teaching and learning, work experience is not integrated into the curriculum – but rather comes as a somewhat random bolt on. Students – who already often have a substantial overdraft – are forced to work for free. Companies may be happy in that they are getting something for nothing – free skilled labour. But in terms of access to the best potential employees, the field in limited to those who can afford to work for free. Furthermore, it seems that they are using graduates for lower level tasks, rather than seeking to develop innovation and professional development through better integration in higher educations systems.

As the Guardian reports, Ben Lyons, from Intern Aware, has said the new phenomenon of unpaid work is a short-sighted business practice. “As well as pricing out smart, hardworking young people, it’s bad for businesses who lose out on talent, and risk the consequences of being in breach of employment law.”



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