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The impact of unpaid internships during the pandemic

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Internships are arguably one of the most important work experience opportunities a young student or graduate will take on before entering the workplace. According to the UK’s most recent estimate, recorded by the coalition government in 2010, approximately 70,000 students will undertake an internship every year.

During the pandemic, internships have seen an even higher increase in demand by graduates and students who have been working from home. As of result of Covid-19, several young people’s career plans have been put on hold with many seeking remote internships as a way to boost their employability in a very unprecedented time for the graduate job market.

However, the pandemic has highlighted many of the pre-existing inequalities that exist within the world of student-centred work placements. We have seen a number of unpaid internships being advertised in the UK, with several employers seeking free labour due to the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses, despite unpaid internships now being illegal in the UK.

Unpaid internships promote unequal opportunity, putting those from low social mobility backgrounds at a significant disadvantage in the job market. Those from working-class backgrounds are less likely to be able to afford to do an unpaid internship, which gives middle-class applicants an advantage. In certain sectors, unpaid work is also a prerequisite within the most competitive and high-paying roles.

Despite the high value of internships by employers everywhere, it is estimated that overall around 10 to 15,000 of internships are unpaid, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. In addition to this, approximately half of these employers paid the minimum wage with 30% paying below it and 21% being expenses only or unpaid.

How unpaid internships impact graduate employability

According to a survey by the Sutton Trust, 27% of young graduates reported completing an unpaid internship, with 53% lasting longer than four weeks during 2018. This indicates that many unpaid internships are long in length, which widens the social mobility gap further.

In addition to this, six months after graduation, 20% of UK and EU domiciled graduates were undergoing an unpaid internship, according to further analysis from the Sutton Trust. This is according to data provided by HESA from their graduate destinations survey in 2015-16.

Certain sectors within the UK have also seen a surge in unpaid internships, such as the arts and the media industries which come under some of the UK’s top-paying industries. The Social Mobility Commission reported a dramatic rise in unpaid internships in 2016, with most internships in retail, the arts and the media being unpaid. The figures stand at 89% for retail, 86% for the arts and 83% for the media.

With many of the world’s top-paying industries being based in London, including the media and law, those who don’t have the means to live there are also less likely to do an internship within these industries. The cost of an unpaid internship in London is estimated to be £1,093 per month and £905 in Manchester, which includes travel costs.

Overall, 53% of advertised internships in the UK are London-based, according to analysis by the Sutton Trust in collaboration with Burning Glass Technologies. This means that those from working-class backgrounds are highly disadvantaged in comparison to their middle-class counterparts.

What do current students think?

College student Samueel Haque, says:

“I think unpaid internships are quite unfair because, in a time where many jobs require years of experience, it can be hard to gain access to these industries in the first place. Many people simply do not have the funds to be travelling and living away from home for internships, especially if they don't pay.

Students with part-time jobs may find also find it hard to juggle their studies, job and an internship. This leaves students with the hard choice of choosing to stick with their part-time job, which often will be in a field where entry-level jobs are more common, such as retail, or choosing to quit and take on an internship in their chosen field with no pay.

While some students may have the choice to choose between the two, others will require the extra funds from their job to live comfortably so they have no choice. Generally, the idea that 'time is money' is thrown out the window.”

Godwin Ezerioh, also a college student, says:

“Seeing an unpaid internship being advertised does impact my confidence because even though they can provide the advantage of work experience, just knowing the fact that I won’t be paid affects my confidence. It makes me feel unvalued, which in turn will impact my motivation to work hard and to perform my role to the highest standards.”

Want to find out more about how unpaid internships are impacting students? Have a listen to our podcast episode, with Miyoshi Tamashiro, live on The Student Sessions:

How we can help

Here at TG Consulting, we can support you with creating robust and impactful real-world learning opportunities at scale.

We understand what students want and what they need from employers and higher education institutions in order to succeed. We understand all aspects of the higher education environment, including employability, progression, student engagement and experience.

Our team, have expertise in developing and scaling initiatives to support your widening participation students, to really close the employability skills gap and level the playing field. Our team can help you identify opportunities to increase engagement with hard to reach students or break down barriers and create real-world opportunities for your students.

We can also help you develop and provide a robust and well-rounded student experience that will help you to engage and attract prospective students and positively impact your current students in the current unprecedented Covid-19 climate.

Whether you are looking for individual programme analysis, graduate and student training and coaching, help with embedding employability frameworks and models, or an employability and careers service health check-up, we are here to help.

Want to find out more about our services? Check out our full list of services at: Or get in touch with us to find out how we can support you at

By Katie Watson, TG Consulting Intern

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