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Exploitation versus Experience: Paying University Fees For Unpaid Internships

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014

Heated debate is continuing over the University of Melbourne’s internship programs, after an American university announced students would no longer receive academic credit for internships.

Columbia University, New York will limit student exposure to unpaid university-managed work placements. The decision comes after pressure from American student group Intern Labor Rights, which “aims to raise awareness to the exploitation of unpaid laborers,” according it its website.

Timothy Lynch, Director of the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, says the university will not follow Columbia’s move. He describes the decision as “highly retrograde”.

“The idea that the University of Melbourne would discontinue one of its most successful engagements with the outside world—one of the key reasons why the students come to us—would undermine what we do as a public institution,” he said.

The last few years have seen an educational movement towards Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) programs such as managed internships. This has been met with growing ethical concerns from students over being charged tuition fees to do productive work for an organisation without remuneration.

On average, an internship subject at the University of Melbourne involves 80 to 110 hours of work with an external organisation and costs the student $3000 to $7000 per semester.

Many students are dissatisfied because they believe the university is using fewer resources for their work placement outside of class time.

“I worked for free for three months, found the internship myself, and the university charged me $7000-plus for the experience. Open theft,” says Executive Master of Arts student, Lauren*.

However, Lynch says internship subject fees should not be lowered. He argues that it is fair for students to pay similar amounts for every course component.

“We provide space for students to reach their potential. They have to fill that space, whether in a classroom setting or in the workplace,” he says.

What the law says

Under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), unpaid work placement arrangements are permitted only if they are a mandatory part of an education or training course. They must be authorised by a state or federal statutory body or under delegated powers to peak bodies such as the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) or Universities Australia.

Under the Act, unpaid internships outside of coursework are technically illegal.

The university’s internship subjects fit this to an extent. If the subject is compulsory for the course, it’s legal. However, if it is an elective, it’s in a grey area according to the Act. For example, a compulsory internship tied in with a medical degree is permitted but an elective subject as part of an arts degree is not.

Currently, most internship subjects at the University of Melbourne are offered as an option for a final year capstone subject. Students in many faculties are not required to do an internship, but must choose a capstone subject of which an internship is an option.

An alternative model

Other parts of the university are doing things differently.

Tin Alley Beta, a summer internship program for IT students led by Miguel Wood, reflects a different approach taken by the Melbourne School of Information. The school launched their start-up internship program last year, aiming to grow technical talent in the Melbourne start-up environment.

The application process to the Tin Alley Beta program is competitive for both students and host organisations. Host organisations are selected based on their ability to remunerate students and to attract applicants during a pitch night held on campus. Students are selected via an online application process and an interview before a selection panel.

Interns participating in Tin Alley Beta are paid by their host organisations. The internship is also not considered a part of the academic curriculum.

“If you want to explore entrepreneurship, you should do it independent of your studies. Start-ups are about survival. If you’re doing it as an assignment, you see the driver as finishing the subject or assignment,” Wood says.

*Name has been changed.