Face-off: Are degree-mandated internships ethical?

We asked students whether they should be expected to complete an internship as part of their degree.

Debate podium Art: Stephanie Barahona

Georgia Tan — For

The debate surrounding unpaid internships used to begin with universities and employers questioning whether students should work for free. Now, students are often required to undertake an internship as part of their degree, earning academic credit for unpaid labour.  The real issue is this: does the academic credit and the experience gained in these degree-mandated internships compensate students for their free work considering that they are, all the while, paying higher-education tuition fees? With 29.1 per cent of undergraduates failing to secure full time employment four months after completing their degree, perhaps degree-mandated internships could be the boost students need to land their desired graduate position.

Degree-mandated internships provide students with guaranteed practical experience, which allows students to apply their academic knowledge to real world work. Why wait until graduation to learn vocational skills and develop transferable soft skills needed in a students’ chosen career path when university can provide the space to do so? Practical experience often makes students more marketable to future employers.

According to a report by the Department of Employment, 25 per cent of interns obtained paid work with their host organisation after their internship. Firms will benefit from the opportunity to train interns, assess their skills and work ethic, and source prospective talent. If degree-mandated internships can increase the employability of its graduates, universities will also gain from this endeavour.

Not only will such internships help students gain real world experience and potentially secure a graduate position, the networking opportunities and chance to discover whether their chosen career field is right can also be invaluable. These placements  can help students better identify what particular areas within the profession they want to apply for jobs in, and potentially redefine choices for future career specialisation.

Under the utilitarian principle, we should adopt the action that brings the most good. Degree-mandated internships, though unpaid, are a win-win situation. All parties — the interns, the host organisations, and the university — can benefit. If it can lead to students gaining industry experience and contacts, enhancing career opportunities, and potentially securing a future graduate position, then what reason is there to say that degree-mandated internships are unethical?

Grace Franki — Against

For many students entering into competitive fields like journalism and teaching, unpaid internships are an inevitability, with many students required to pay for mandatory placement unites as required by their degree. University students who have to balance work, life and study are placed in an incredibly difficult position; they are required to undertake significant amounts of unpaid work in order to graduate, but left unable to generate significant income to support themselves in the meantime. All the while, they compete for places against students with wealthier, well-connected relatives.

An argument peddled by proponents of mandatory internships is that these placements  increase the likelihood of securing a job after graduation. However, in submissions to the Productivity Commission Review of the Workplace Relations Framework by Interns Australia in 2015, four in five survey respondents reported their unpaid internship did not lead to a paid position with that employer. Even beyond attempting to secure a job with the same employer, the requirement that all students complete an internship means this is something of a zero-sum game on a CV.

Many of these students are undertaking internships towards the end of their degree, when their qualifications are roughly similar to that of a graduate. But the fact that employers have access to a continuous stream of interns means that they are more likely to hire new unpaid students every semester rather than take on graduates as waged employees.

Obviously internships do come with the opportunity to learn about an industry in a practical way. But this benefit isn’t unique to the current system. It would also be possible where internships were shorter and paid, or better yet, where degrees were restructured to focus on the vocational  rather than theoretical aspects of an industry. When all students are required to undertake an internship, there is less of an expectation that coursework should be dedicated towards development practical skills. Remove the exploitative tradition of degree-mandated internships and perhaps there would be more pressure on lecturers and the university to keep course content relevant to a changing workforce.