Nick Clegg has unveiled the government’s new scheme on social mobility and child poverty, entitled ‘Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers.’ The proposals call upon companies to award work experience internships on merit alone, rather than allowing privileged students to secure internships informally, through family connections.
The government is leading the way by ending informal internships in Whitehall from 2012. Ministers will also set up an independent Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
The plans were met with criticism by Labour MP Harriet Harman, who accused Clegg of hypocrisy by using family connections to find work himself and betraying young people by abolishing EMA and increasing university tuition fees.
Unpaid internships also came under fire. Whilst Clegg urged companies to provide interns with sufficient financial support, there will be no legal obligation for businesses to do so under current plans.
Jonathan Black, Director of Oxford University Careers Service, described unpaid internships as ‘socially divisive’ and wrong from both a business and a moral perspective.
“We are insistent that students are either paid a stipend for their work, or that the costs of accommodation and travel are covered. In lots of industries, such as media, it is the norm not to be paid for internships, which is nothing short of exploitation.
“Industries like the City are in fact a model in this respect (and it’s very rare for the City to be a model for anything!) They advertise clearly, interview across the spectrum and pay. They realise that interns do highly valuable work.”
Black observed, however, that “[Clegg’s] remarks on networking were naïve, as he himself demonstrated, having used personal connections in the past to secure a position. Networking is vital, and it operates at every level of society. You might start with few contacts but you build your way up.”
Lincoln Hill, Chair of Oxford University Labour Club, said of the government proposals, “I am pleased that the issue of unpaid internships has been getting national attention. OULC strongly endorses the principle of paying interns the minimum wage and has petitioned Ed Miliband to end unpaid places in the Labour Party… the overwhelming bulk of evidence shows that investment in human capital is one of the principal factors in long-term social mobility and economic growth.”
OUSU Vice President Alex Bulfin agreed, “Discouraging companies from attracting cheap labour through unpaid internships is a good thing… but if the government genuinely feels that this is the answer to improving social mobility then they are betraying just how detached from society politics has become.
“Social mobility is bound to a range of diverse and complex factors, from socio-economic and community pressures through to education and early years development. Ending a few unpaid Whitehall internships is going to make practically no impact on social mobility.”