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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Paid, unpaid and hidden internships: still a barrier to social mobility

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.

References

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


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The number of graduates in non-graduate jobs is still high

By Heike Behle

A recent IER report prepared for HEFCE and SRHE shows that the proportion of employed graduates working in non-graduate jobs during their first year after graduation has remained high. Fifteen months after graduation, approximately 36 per cent of all employed graduates from three year courses and 30 per cent of all employed graduates from four year courses were still working in non-graduate jobs, defined as jobs for which a graduate level education is inappropriate.

The definition and empirical classification of occupations in non-graduate or graduate jobs is contested and there is a plethora of different ways to measure the amount of graduates in non-graduate jobs. This report uses a definition from Elias and Purcell (2004 )[1], based on the type of work typically performed in a job and the extent to which such work makes use of the skills and knowledge gained through higher education. This classification varies from that of the recent White Paper [2]  where occupations of the first three major SOC groups are identified as professional jobs.

new-picture-1The report compares the early pathways of graduates from two leaving cohorts: those who graduated in 1999 (‘class of 1999’) and those who graduated from three year courses in 2009 and from four year courses in 2010 (‘class of 2009/2010’) as illustrated in the graph opposite.

On average, all graduates in both cohorts were employed for approximately ten months, in total. However, the proportion of graduates from the class of 2009/2010 who never entered employment during the first fifteen months after graduation was between 26 per cent and 29 per cent, nearly twice the proportion, compared to those who graduated ten years earlier (class of 1999). One explanation could be that many graduates enter further study in order to avoid unemployment or employment in non-graduate jobs.

Age, social background, specific subjects, type of HEI and the class of degree were significant influences in both cohorts while differences existed with regards to gender, mobility and work experience. In line with other current reports (the Shadbolt Review of Computer Sciences degree accreditation and graduate employability, the Wakeham Review of STEM degree provision and graduate employability, and HEFCE analysis of differential outcomes of graduates) , the increasing relevance of work experience was highlighted. For the class of 1999 work experiences did not have a significant impact on the likelihood to work in a graduate job. However, this was the case for those who graduated ten years later.

This was also reflected in a brief qualitative research study in which many graduates reported that employers expected them to have work experience but were not prepared to offer opportunities for graduates. Also, many graduates reported the negative impact of being stuck in non-graduate roles which they defined as a vicious circle, in which their current employment had implications for their self-confidence, which might lead to a degrading of skills and knowledge. As a result, their capacity to leave the non-graduate job and find employment in a graduate position might be limited.

[1] Elias, P. and Purcell, K. (2004) SOC (HE): A classification of occupations for studying the graduate labour market. http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/research/completed/7yrs2/rp6.pdf

[2] BIS (2016) Higher education: success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility, and student choice. Can be downloaded here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-success-as-a-knowledge-economy-white-paper

Heike Behle is a Research Fellow at the Warwick Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick (http://www.warwick.ac.uk/ier). Heike is also a co-convenor of the SRHE’s Employability, Enterprise and Work-based Learning Network