Unpaid Internships: The Pressure Should be on Universities

Commentary, Education, Brianna Heinrichs

Public debate continues over unpaid internships for students. Unpaid internships can provide new work experiences and help students meet university or college requirements. However, reasonable people often consider them to be exploitation of young people.

Consequently, some groups, such as the University of Toronto’s Student Union, are fighting for the government to prohibit all forms of unpaid labour. But is that going too far?

Unpaid internships are typically illegal in most provinces, unless they are part of a program at an educational institution. Many students report having positive learning experiences doing unpaid internships, and some have found them helpful in getting jobs.

If employers, especially smaller businesses, have to pay students who are in training, they might not bother to offer these opportunities at all. Similarly, many non-profits do not have funds to pay interns, yet students can develop valuable skills by doing voluntary work for them.

This is likely why governments are hesitant to make all unpaid internships illegal. Governments must not squelch these valuable opportunities for students, and instead they must push universities to develop reasonable policies of their own.

Career Services at Brock University, for example, has shared the type of unpaid opportunities that they consider appropriate for students. If the opportunity is with a charity, the hours worked must be at the discretion of the student. Unpaid service-learning projects, corporate mentorships, and relevant co-op opportunities might be approved.

Columbia University in New York City, on the other hand, has stated that it expects all companies to compensate their students and that most of its departments no longer give academic credit as a replacement for pay.

Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in New York does not allow employers to recruit unpaid interns at campus career fairs, but it permits them to post their opportunities on the school’s job bank if they clearly state that the internship is unpaid. Cornell University sometimes funds up to 75 percent of a student’s wages if they intern at a non-profit and up to 50 percent if the student works for a small business.

The universities that do give unpaid opportunities a green light might consider reducing or eliminating student fees in cases where students voluntarily accept these unpaid positions. Students typically have to cover their own transportation costs during an unpaid internship, and student and co-op fees for the term can alone be a substantial burden on students who already face the rising costs of living.

In addition to taking proactive measures to prevent student exploitation and alleviate financial stress, universities need to develop protocols for both unpaid and paid students who might still be taken advantage of in the workplace. In 2011, a student in Alberta, Andy Ferguson, was killed after he fell asleep driving home after working long hours. Apparently, his employer told him that he would not be given his school credit if he did not work over-time. Students should know that they have means of recourse with their school if they are abused in such a way.

Universities must also reconsider the practical experience requirements for their programs and strive to be flexible. Being a good nurse or teacher takes more than book knowledge, and in some professions people must have a minimum amount of hours of experience to gain certification. But with some programs, universities could still issue coursework completion certificates to students who are unable to finish practical requirements.

Right now, universities promote themselves by claiming that their students will have opportunities to gain practical, hands-on experience, but they are often unclear on whether these opportunities involve pay. Prospective students must be able to learn a school’s policies on unpaid internships simply by accessing its website.

Increased transparency and clear policies at a more local level are an effective solution to the problem of exploitative unpaid internships. The federal and provincial governments provide universities with considerable funding, so they must ensure that universities protect their students and still facilitate meaningful opportunities. If universities cannot or do not properly address the issue, then more prohibitive laws might be considered as a last resort.