By Wil Hunt
New evidence suggests graduates from less privileged backgrounds are still at risk of being locked out of certain key industries such as cultural, political and extraterritorial organisations, the media and legal professions. Graduate internships have been the subject of considerable debate for more than ten years. Yet, despite media and policy interest on the topic there is still a lack of generalisable quantitative data on the prevalence of the practice and, particularly, on the question as to whether some groups are being excluded. Back in 2009, the final report of the Panel for Fair Access to the Professions (Milburn, 2009) argued that taking part in an internship after leaving university was often an ‘essential’ first career step in many professions but raised concerns that access was often a question of who you know, not what you know, and whether graduates had the financial means to work for free for a significant period of time.
Fast forward eleven years and while there has been some research on the topic there have still only been generalisable quantitative studies looking at graduate internships in the UK. This is in no small part down to the fact that the main statutory surveys, such as the Labour Force Survey, fail to capture internships as a separate employment category. The Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, has been one notable exception to this, capturing internships since the 2011/12 graduating cohort. Other exceptions include the Futuretrack study, which has followed a cohort of first degree applicants since applying to university in 2006, and one or two one-off surveys.
Studies using data from these sources have shown that unpaid internships do not confer the same advantages as paid internships or university work placements in accessing the best jobs, have a negative impact on earnings and may even reduce the chances of having a graduate job in the short to medium term (Purcell et al, 2012; Holford, 2017; Hunt, 2016). Thus, unpaid graduate internships may not be the ‘invaluable’ ‘leg-up’ claimed by some MPs when talking out the 2016 private members bill that sought to outlaw unpaid internships (Hansard, 4 November col 1156-1226). The same quantitative studies also suggest that access to internships is moulded by a range of factors including social class and educational background, although not always in the way one might expect (Hunt and Scott, 2018).
More recent attempts to assess the situation have been hampered by the measurement problems noted above. The Sutton Trust have made two commendable attempts to estimate participation internships at six months after graduation using the DLHE for the 2012/13 and 2015/16 cohorts (Sutton Trust, 2014; Montacute, 2018). However, these studies underestimated the proportion of unpaid internships by not fully accounting for item non-response in questions about pay in the DLHE and not measuring internships reported as ‘voluntary’ jobs. Examples of ‘voluntary’ jobs identified in the 2011/12 DLHE included: web design and development professionals; conservation professionals; legal professionals; management consultants; journalists; PR professionals; architects; and artists (Hunt and Scott, 2020). Hardly the kinds of work for good causes the voluntary work exception in minimum wage legislation was intended to preclude (Pyper, 2015). When these ‘hidden’ internships were counted in the 2011/12 DLHE 58% of graduates doing an internship at six months after graduation were unpaid – far more than previously estimated (Hunt and Scott, 2020).
Now the DLHE has been replaced by the Graduate Outcomes survey we will only know about graduate internships occurring at 15 months after graduation, after many have been completed. The 2016/17 DLHE, therefore, represents an opportunity to reassess the situation and see how things have changed since 2011/12. The current analysis of the 2016/17 DLHE, funded by SRHE, shows that while the number and proportion of graduates doing an internship at six months after graduation is the same as for the 2011/12 cohort, the number of ‘hidden’ internships has halved from 1,375 to 650 and the proportion of internships that are unpaid has declined from 58% to 36%.
Whilst the decline in unpaid internships is welcome, they still account for more than a third of internships at six months after graduation and this figure is substantially higher in certain key industries and occupations, such as:
- activities of extraterritorial organisations (eg EC, UN, OECD) (92%);
- membership organisations (which would include unions and political parties) (70%);
- libraries, museums and cultural activities (69%);
- programming and broadcasting (69%);
- legal associate professionals (69%);
- conservation and environmental associate professionals (67%); and
- government and related administrative occupations (including NGOs) (63%).
Findings from other, less generalisable, surveys suggests that the number of graduates engaging in an internship at some point is only likely to increase during the first few years after graduation and, again, many of these are likely to be unpaid (Hunt and Scott, 2018; Cullinane and Montacute, 2018). The most striking findings from the current research, however, are from the multivariate analysis of participation patterns. This analysis shows that, after controlling for the other factors in the analysis, having better grades or studying at a prestigious university increases the chances of securing a paid internship six months after graduation, whereas coming from a higher socio-economic background increases the odds of doing an unpaid internship.
These findings show that, whilst unpaid internships appear to be declining in most sectors, they are still a key access route in some key industries and occupations and that this is likely to present a barrier to entry for less privileged graduates. The fact that graduates with better grades or from more prestigious institutions are more likely to do the paid internships reinforces findings from previous studies that suggest paid internships are more competitive and sought after. The findings also show that participation in graduate internships, paid or unpaid, is more commonplace in less vocational subjects, such as mass communication and documentation, historical and philosophical studies and creative arts and design. This may suggest that graduates of these subjects feel more need to supplement their educational qualifications with internships to ‘get ahead’ in an increasingly competitive graduate labour market.
Dr Wil Hunt is a Research Fellow at the ESRC-funded Digit Research Centre at the University of Sussex. His research interests centre around the higher education, the graduate Labour market and the impact of new digital technologies on the world of work.
This blog reports on research funded by SRHE as one of its 2018 Member Award projects.
Cullinane, C and Montacute, R (2018) Pay as You Go? Internship pay, quality and access in the graduate jobs market London: The Sutton Trust
Hansard HC Deb vol 616 col 1156-1226 (4 November 2016) National Minimum Wage (Workplace Internships) Bill [Electronic Version]
Holford, A (2017) Access to and Returns from Unpaid Graduate Internships IZA Discussion Paper No 10845 Bonn: IZA Institute of Labor Economics
Hunt, W (2016) Internships and the Graduate Labour Market PhD thesis, University of Portsmouth
Hunt, W and Scott, P (2018) ‘Participation in paid and unpaid internships among creative and communications graduates: does class advantage play a part?’ In Waller, R Ingram, N and Ward, M (2018) (Eds.) Degrees of Injustice: Social Class Inequalities in University Admissions, Experiences and Outcomes London: BSA/Routledge
Hunt, W and Scott, P (2020) ‘Paid and unpaid graduate internships: prevalence, quality and motivations at six months after graduation’ Studies in Higher Education 45(2): 464-476
Milburn, A (chair) (2009) Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions London: The Stationery Office
Montacute, R (2018) Internships – Unpaid, unadvertised, unfair Research Brief London: The Sutton Trust
Purcell, K, Elias, P, Atfield, G, Behle, H, Ellison, R, Luchinskaya, D, … Tzanakou, C (2012) Futuretrack Stage 4: Transitions into employment, further study and other outcomes (Full Report). (HECSU Research Report) Manchester: Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU)
Pyper, D (2015) The National Minimum Wage: volunteers and interns. Briefing Paper Number 00697. London: House of Commons Library.
Sutton Trust (2014). Internship or Indenture? Research Brief London: The Sutton Trust