Work experience: for whose benefit?

Interns are the new apprentices, paying for an employment opportunity. The system will wipe out the

Anyone who works in a think-tank, charity, publishing house, magazine or museum - indeed any political, media or policy job - will know about work experience and interns. They are the eager, ambitious university graduates who do anything from making coffee to researching high-level reports - and don't appear on the payroll. They have learnt that the only way to get on the first rung of the ladder for their chosen career is to offer their services for nothing.

"My careers adviser told me that the only way to get a job in a think-tank was to do an unpaid internship in London," says Jo Maybin, a Cambridge graduate. "There was no way I could afford it on top of my student debt, so I had to change my career ideas." Her dilemma is increasingly common. If you want a job, you must first demonstrate your enthusiasm and skills (schmoozing, blagging and flirting included) free of charge. It can be a great start. But when the average graduate has a debt of £12,500, the trend does little to promote Tony Blair's vision of a meritocratic Britain.

Jess, with a degree in art history from Cambridge, is spending three months working for free at a magazine where she does admin, research and a bit of writing in the hope of eventually being given a real job. Daniel, with a First in English, works part-time at a call centre to pay for his publishing internship. Rosie, a linguist fluent in four languages, is doing paid care work part-time to support a part-time volunteer placement in a human rights organisation.

Ethical questions inevitably arise: it's a fine line between giving graduates valuable experience and taking advantage of their enthusiasm. Beth, a recent graduate with a first-class degree, an MA and a debt of £11,000, took an unpaid research job in a prestigious think-tank because she saw it as the only way to break into the competitive world of policy-making. A member of staff later told her privately that they had realised she was well up to the standard required when they interviewed her for a paid position, but as they knew she was prepared to continue to work for free they had offered it to someone else. "I still really valued my experience as an intern," she says. "But I felt that was very unfair - if I was qualified enough to get paid I shouldn't have been working for nothing."

Sir Alan Wilson, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds and the government's new higher education supremo, has just proposed that Britain should aim to increase university intake to 70 per cent of all school leavers. The government has also repeatedly emphasised the central point of its January higher education white paper, that wider access "plays a vital role in expanding opportunity and promoting social justice". But as more and more young people graduate (and earn good degrees) employers have to find new ways to rank applicants for jobs. Work experience is increasingly playing that role. A recent employment survey by the National Council for Work Experience (NCWE) revealed that 44 per cent of students believed their internships had been more important to employers than their academic qualifications. So if social justice is the objective of higher education policy, then it has to look beyond university entry to graduate recruitment and training practices, in which internships play a crucial role.

Gill Allen, who has been a careers adviser to university students for more than 25 years, says the requirement that graduates do unpaid work has been increasing since she has been advising students, "especially in publishing, museum work and the media". The increase arises, she says, because "more people go to university now than in the past, so more graduates want to work in these popular professions". Liz Rhodes, the NCWE director, backs this up. "There is an increasing recognition among graduates that they need work experience to get the jobs they want."

As well as being an essential first rung on the career ladder, on-the-job experience can be genuinely useful. All the interns we talked to, though their responsibilities varied from basic administration to research and report-writing, said their internships had been beneficial in terms of learning new skills and making more informed career decisions. Initially Nimisha Tanna, now working in a paid position at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, had no driving ambition to be a policy-maker. She started to do voluntary work at the Race Equality Council in her home town of Bedford because she was "a bit bored, really", but found the experience gave her new direction, eventually helping her secure her present job. Ben, who did two internships in the UK as well as voluntary work abroad before getting a paid job in immigration policy research, found the experience invaluable. "By the time I finished my first internship I had my name on a major report published by the think-tank I was working for. With the contacts I made, it definitely helped me get my present job."

Graduates are so aware of the value of work experience that applicants for unpaid internships often face cut-throat competition. The New Statesman receives 20-30 applications for internships every week, many from graduates with glittering CVs. Sam Usiskin, who manages an internship programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, gets applications from people with postgraduate qualifications and even PhDs. "I often have to turn people down because they are too well qualified," he says. Ben recalls that on finishing his MA course, "there were people in my year who had paid over £10,000 to do the course, on top of their student debt, and they were still competing for unpaid jobs."

Employers certainly benefit. Presented with ranks of well-qualified, highly motivated graduates willing to work for free, organisations can cherry-pick the best. And there are often financial benefits. One intern we heard of, with an MSc in computer science, set up a website for a charity - a service most companies pay thousands of pounds for. Other organisations rely on interns to do basic administration, saving on paid clerical staff.

Internships can also be a cheap way of putting potential employees on probation. The recruit has to prove his or her worth. In a survey by the NCWE, two-thirds of employers said that they offered work placements in the hope of finding permanent staff. Liz Rhodes calls it a "try-before-you-buy" recruitment system.

Others might call it making poor graduates pay for their own training. The benefit system may help, but this is in effect subsidising company-specific training with public money. But as long as the less well-off are excluded, internships will become the finishing schools for the offspring of affluent homes.

All this has consequences for the demographics of the workforce in sectors such as the media, the creative industries, charities and politics. These sectors are often heard trying to challenge the popular perception that they are the preserves of the middle class. Ben recalls a recruitment meeting during his internship in a left-wing think-tank. "They were all wondering why everyone who worked there was white, middle class and from the same area of London. Well, if you're going to make unpaid work an essential channel for recruitment, there you have it."

Work experience benefits both graduates and employers, but while it is unpaid the system will have a grave impact on equal opportunities. Maybe internships should be covered by the minimum wage, as the NCWE recommends. Perhaps they should be brought within the higher education system.

Certainly, if nothing changes and work experience remains the only means of graduate entry into some professions, the good intentions behind widening university access will come to nothing. Those from poorer backgrounds will still be excluded from influential jobs, and organisations will continue to miss out on the diversity that could be a source of change and progress.