Unpaid internships should be banned at UU

The university loves to talk about equal opportunity, but in higher education not all options to actually achieve this goal, are used. An example of this is using students as cheap employees in the form of an unpaid internship.

After completing my bachelor’s programme in Biomedical Sciences, last autumn I started my research internship for a master in Infection & Immunity at the Graduate School of Life Sciences. The intention is to work on that during complete workdays, for nine months, during five days a week. You are expected to be able to work in the lab independently after about ten weeks. The difference is that technicians and PhDs do get paid for the same work, but as a student-trainee you’re left empty-handed.

Gaining experience
It’s a peculiar situation. The research group receives money to educate a student and the student gets told that he is already costing society a lot of money, so if you’re wondering why you’re not getting anything, keep your mouth shut. But that doesn’t work with a fulltime research internship like this. During the internship, the student has to efface themselves in more ways than one in the context of ‘gaining experience.’ You often work evenings too, and don’t have much time to spend on a side job, let alone going to the gym or practicing a hobby that offers some relaxation. All this from the idea that they’re helping you reach your master-exceeding career goal.

After a mostly theoretical bachelor’s degree, as a young medical biologist I could not wait to get into practice and contribute to the healing of our sick fellow man. As the brother of someone with a congenital immune disorder who might not have survived without his doctors in Utrecht, I know how new treatments can provide a light in the darkness not only for patients but also for their entire families. My personal disappointment does not represent all internships, and fundamental research in medical science certainly is important as well. Still, it feels strange.

Monotonous work
Also in medical science, the emphasis at the moment is mainly on publishing and getting a PhD. The impact of the research on people's health does not seem to be the main focus. My tasks as an intern consisted mainly of supporting a PhD student in carrying out, completing and analysing experiments.

As a master student I was used as a useful and cheap tool. Yes, due to my deteriorated personal circumstances, my internship became more monotonous than it should be. But I noticed that my fellow students also had to master an average of five techniques during their internship. After an often short introduction, this boils down to repeated application of the same learned techniques. And the fact that you have to learn these techniques as a student-trainee is not a valid reason for not receiving payment for your work either: Technicians and PhD students are constantly learning new techniques during their work. It’s part of the job.

Academic treadmill
For me, a medical research internship at the Graduate School of Life Sciences would make more sense if I had had the feeling that the priority of my work was to make a useful contribution to healing patients. As a student you are now expected to keep the academic treadmill running for a PhD student in exchange for a good rating.

Is this fair? I myself had to (hopefully only temporarily) interrupt my research internship, among other things because I did not know how to deal with this. A student that is working on research for so many hours should be paid for this, especially when the work mainly serves the interest of the guiding research group.

It is for a reason that in 2020, the European Parliament already decided to very clearly describe unpaid internships for youngsters as exploitation and a violation of their rights.

Earlier this year, the European Committee of Social Rights rapped the knuckles of our southern neighbours for allegedly violating the European Social Charter, an important human rights treaty that also applies in the Netherlands. In Belgium, interns are often expected to carry out the same work as paid employees without receiving any remuneration, and according to the Committee, this is a form of discrimination.

My plea is supported by a report on unpaid internships in higher education of student organization ISO that appeared earlier this week. It found that half of the university students who do internships do not get paid for those internships.

Who can tell me why Utrecht University, with all its fancy words about equal opportunity, seems to be waiting until European guidelines are turned into national legislation before finally giving interns the remuneration they are entitled to? This involves an internship allowance which will probably still be far below the legal minimum wage.