When I first dipped into lecturing a couple of years ago, I was simply astonished, and if I could be so bold to say disappointed, by how many courses and lecturers not only approve of unpaid internship ‘schemes’, but loudly promote them, encouraging students to do free work for businesses wherever possible, to gain experience and exposure.
Alongside being a journalist, I’ve had the pleasure of being a lecturer for a short while. I teach within journalism courses for various universities across the UK – some red brick, some prestigious, others a bit more rough around the edges (my favourite, to be honest). It’s a mixed bag, and unfortunately, these words aren’t written with just a minority of universities in mind, but with a culture that I’ve came across too frequently.
You Can’t Claim To Be Innovative And Still Promote Unpaid Work
Universities are supposed to be the leaders of education in society for our young people. They were once hailed as the trailblazers, held in high regard for thinking outside of the box, doing things differently and rather fantastically. God knows they should be doing something pretty speculator and worthwhile – students are paying enough to be there.
Their job is to lead students into work, in a strong, positive, ethical and hopeful way, and yet, so many of those involved in courses promote the toxic culture of unpaid work. Claiming to be an innovative university, while promoting students to do unpaid internships, simply can not exist together.
As lecturers give unpaid internships the nod, it teaches students that their efforts are not worthy, not valuable, that they should sell themselves short, and that they are only ‘good enough’ to be paid, once someone tells them they are – a really quite dangerous message.
It was drilled into me when I was a student – I should write as many unpaid articles as I could physically do and undertake as many unpaid work placements as possible. And when things came full circle, I was shocked to find that things haven’t moved on.
Right Now, Students Are Particularly Vulnerable Targets
Since lecturing, I regularly hear students being told things like:
- Do be expected to write for free when you’re starting out – don’t ask to be paid, you’re just a student,
- You have to fund your own internships in London, don’t complain if expenses aren’t paid for,
- You can only get published work with a portfolio of unpaid work,
- You can only get paid work once you’ve written for free at various places first,
- You have to start working for smaller publications before you move onto bigger publications.
While students are having paid internships cancelled at this weird time, they are particularly vulnerable to publications taking advantage. More than usual, businesses will be finding more ways to exploit writers, even more so those who are students.
“It’s tempting in these uncertain times to offer to write for free out of panic, but it keeps exploitation alive.”
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never had a piece of published, if you’re a fresh faced student, just beginning outside of university, or mid-way through your writing career – you do not need to ever work for free. You’re allowed to learn, you’re allowed to make mistakes, and you’re allowed to not come from the place where you’ve got 10 years journalism experience under your belt.
It’s tempting in these uncertain times to offer to write for free out of panic. Recently, one lecturer I crossed paths with was promoting students to “use this time wisely” and offer free labour to publications. If lecturers promote free work and encourage students to intern for free, it keeps exploitation alive. It encourages businesses to continue with their bad practices.
There Is Another Way. It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This
These universities are not only selling their students a damaging message, but on a grander scale, it harms and dilutes the industry in a wider way, which makes it harder for everybody.
It’s about the industry as a collective – we all should be looking out for each other and if you’re personally writing for free, you’re potentially stopping the creative next to you from being paid.
If you’re a course leader of journalism degree and you care about the industry as whole, you will be able to see that thousands of student journalists working for free every year negatively impacts the industry.
For any students reading this thinking, “ok, this is all well and good but how do I get paid and published work?” the first step is simply putting yourself out there.
It can be done – I have worked with hundreds of young people, some studying journalism, others who have never been to university, get published in major national and global outlets after pitching their article ideas to editors.
Kickstart your freelancing career as a student
Many students have got paid between £100 – £500 on their first ever pitches. This isn’t a ‘well done’ kudos to my indie consultancy business, The Freelance Sessions, but more of a reality check for students that you can get your ideas published now. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first or last week of university, you can pitch to editors. I always tell students who I lecture, you’re not ‘student journalists’, You’re freelance journalists.
Start pitching your ideas and quit writing for that blog with a circulation of 100 readers for that editor whose promising to pay you “as soon as she gets some money together“. A little spoiler for you, she’s probably never going to pay you. It’s got nothing to do with you or your work and everything to do with how they’re operating their business (unethically).
If you’re a student and are worried that you have to work for free and do unpaid internships until you can eventually be paid, rest assure in the knowledge that there is another way. It doesn’t have to be like this. No matter what your lecturer tells you.
This is an opinion piece written by a freelance contributor. Views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Journo Resources team – but it’s safe to say we think unpaid internships are pretty pants.