Friday 9 July 2010

Internships auctioned at Oxford university.

On the bus this morning, a young father was distributing pocket money to his three small children. The eldest was kicking the back of my chair in bone-jarringly rhythmic anticipation of being taken to town for a day's shopping, but when he received his small handout, the kicking stopped.

'I'm not going to spend my three pounds, dad," announced the boy, "I'm going to save it, and then I’m going to save all my pocket money, and then I can go to university and get a good job."

This may, of course, have been the sort of cunning ploy to wheedle extra cash out of your parents that anyone who was ever a smartarse seven-year-old will recognise. It speaks volumes about the state of social equality, though, that whilst this primary school pupil from inner London was contemplating forfeiting an entire childhood's worth of treats to afford a chance at higher education and fulfilling work, wealthy Oxford graduates were taking up prestigious internships which they had purchased at a lavish charity auction held at the university last month.

Students who attended the opulent Red Couture Ball, entry tickets for which were priced at up to £300, were able to bid thousands of pounds for coveted professional placements with law firms and fashion designers. A mini-pupillage with barrister Neil Kitchener QC was under the hammer, alongside designer gowns, hotel breaks and other goodies only available to the extremely well-off. Sam Frieman, co-organiser of the auction, told The Cherwell that "you can only come to the auction if you have paid for a ticket. In response to the criticism that a lot of people could be priced out, I would say, 'that's life'."

Internships like these are now prerequisites for many jobs, and most interns work extremely hard to obtain and finance work placements. "As someone from a low-income, East Midlands background, this auction is another reminder that I'm at a disadvantage because I can't afford an internship,” said recent Oxford graduate Kate Gresswell, 21. Relative inequality within the Oxbridge system is hardly the pressing issue of our day, but if even Oxford graduates are finding that money matters more than merit in the job market, something has gone terribly wrong in our social calculations.

The internship system is already expensive enough to exclude all but the richest and most fortunate young people from popular jobs. I could pretend, for example, that it's my winning smile and blatant genius which have enabled me to find work as a journalist - but a year's unpaid interning, during which I survived on a small inheritance from a dead relative, had just as much to do with it. Any graduate or school-leaver without the means to support themselves in London whilst working for free can currently forget about a career in journalism, politics, the arts, finance, the legal profession or any of a number of other sectors whose business models are now based around a lower tier of unpaid labour.

After the relative levelling of university, class reasserts itself with whiplash force as graduates from low-income backgrounds find the doors of opportunity slammed in their faces. Last week, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development called for employers to be legally obliged to pay interns a minimum wage of £2.50 an hour, but such a step is unlikely to be taken by the Coalition, which has already made it breathtakingly clear that preventing young people from falling through the cracks in our society is not likely to be a priority any time soon.

With seventy applicants for every new vacancy, with over a million young people unemployed and with millions more languishing in insecure, temporary and poorly-paid work, the job market is now open only to those who can afford to buy their way in. The Telegraph reports that across the country hundreds of placements are being sold or brokered, often at similar auctions for the wealthy, where the fact that proceeds go to charity gives the new nobility yet another reason to be smug about affording the life chances that previous generations enjoyed for free.

For the few of us who are wealthy enough to finance ourselves through work placements, only a firm push is needed to force open the doors of opportunity. Without a coordinated effort to reverse this regressive trend, the years to come will be littered with wasted potential and filled with disappointments for young people with nothing to bring to the table but talent, creativity and ambition.


  1. Britain is a class ridden dump. This isn't going to change, the ignorance on both sides of the social divide are too ingrained.

  2. having seemingly little chance of any paid job of worth to me i have resigned myself to unpaid internships, but even these are competitive to get. my instincts tell me not to do it, as the only way of stopping this most blatant examples of labour exploitation is through collective strike action. sadly i have little choice.

  3. Well thats helpful robbie love. Proactive, even. Laurie; you're great. Robbie; you're an idiot. Oxbridge; kind of want to burn the privalidge to the ground.

  4. Urgh .... I can hardly hold back my bile on this subject. I too went to University (Birmingham - a good, traditional red-brick) thinking that the doors of opportunity would be open to all on a fair and equal basis afterwards. They are not.
    What you write is absolutely true, and I think, in our current economic climate, it's only going to get worse.
    Robby is right: Britain is a class-ridden dump.
    Working class kids who go to University come out with a degree and a pile of debt, and very few have the option to take on a year or more's unpaid work to get established in the sort of careers that you're talking about. You think it will get easier as you get older, too, but it doesn't.
    Good for you, Laurie - I'm glad you had a dead relly to live off. I'm sorry I didn't. Now I'm 35, a single mum, on benefits and wondering how the hell I, who was once declared so gifted and talented at school, got here. WTF.

  5. I can see it from their point of view, they need people to bring in business. They *need* businesses. Hiring a bright young lad from Hull isn't going get them as much as a Russian oligarchs daughter.

    I expect a lot of firms are doing this because they want specifically to hire the sort of people who's parents can pay.

    Anon of Not Searched

  6. It's cr@p. People need to start working on their self-esteem so they can get through the cr@p that is thrown at them. I suggest a gentle start, pick up a beach-bonkbuster novel at an appropriate charity shop, buy, enjoy. But with a tiny bit of cynicism about the rich protagonists. Just tell yourself a hundred times that these absurd, supposedly glamorous people would fall apart if they had to deal with NOT BEING RICH. And the same with celebrity magazines.

    And make sure your life counts for something, whether or not you get paid to do something.

  7. Look on the bright side: if the Universities didn't already have an intake wildly slanted towards the wealthy, this would be a bigger problem.

  8. How revealing, that only when inequality comes to Oxford do we get graduates discussing class.

  9. Yes and all the swoty, David Bowie loveing kids at my school (back in the day) who knew which Uni's and poly's to go too and how to get there and had well off/careing parents enough pocket money for gigs, parties, fags,fashion, music (i.e.all the pennyred types) without doing paper rounds/ jobs/begging looked down on the those of us who didn't. Shit goes down-water, gas goes up, water will find its level.

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