Paul Sagar: Only wealthy graduates need apply

MPs this week attacked leading UK universities for being “elitist”, citing evidence that twice as many children from rich families go to university as those from poorer backgrounds. This is a damning indictment of the lack of social mobility in modern Britain – but it is not the only one.


Many of this year’s 400,000 upcoming university leavers are about to discover that even having achieved a degree, there remain significant blocks to social mobility in Labour’s Britain.


As things stand, university leavers wishing to work in journalism, politics, public policy or related fields can expect their first year of work to be unpaid. Those wishing to enter the legal profession can also expect long periods of unremunerated work – after paying thousands in graduate course fees. The same is true of many other professions.


The current internship system is therefore a substantial block to social mobility. The vast majority of internships are offered in London, with interns receiving expenses for lunch and travel at best. Yet the cost of living in London is notoriously high, and the cost of renting accommodation the highest in the country.


This state of affairs means that internships are de facto open only to the wealthy. Only those with family in London that they can stay with for free, and who are economically supported during months of unpaid work, can enter the present system. Given that most top-end middle class professions now demand periods of unpaid interning, it doesn’t take a genius to see this is a recipe for social immobility.


There are scores of young people from lower-middle and working class families who have worked hard to graduate with good degree qualifications – only to find that the doors to many professions are firmly locked. For as well as the financial barriers to the current interning system, there’s another truth to be reckoned with: being offered an internship will often depend more on who you know than what you’ve done.


It is tempting to blame the organisations employing unpaid interns. But the fact is, this free labour is now such a staple part of so many professions that relying on it is a basic component of most business models – even for employers who find the practice dubious. Reform is only possible if the government imposes it, either by legislating to end the practice or providing substantial income support for those unable to work for free.


There is good reason to welcome the government’s plan, announced last January, of creating new internships for university leavers during the recession. This will help graduates entering the most hostile job market for a generation. But even if Labour’s words are followed up with action, current proposals aren’t enough.


All that is being mooted at present is the creation of an unspecified number of new internships with pay deals keeping graduates at their university income level. This does nothing to address the issue of the existing internship industry, which will presumably go on as before, and continue once this recession is over.


Yet if we are to have a society in which the class of one’s birth ceases to determine one’s socio-economic horizons, a wholesale reform of the system is required. The government is right to demand that more students from poor backgrounds make it to university. But it must be reminded that it is no good sending students to university if once they have graduated their parents are too poor or ill-connected to make their degrees count for anything.


Paul Sagar currently works as the media and research assistant for Dr John Pugh, Liberal Democrat MP for Southport, and also blogs at Bad conscience. His article can be read here.

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