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Internships: Are They Better Abroad for UK Students?

Largely unpaid, besieged by complaints of poor working conditions or just impossible to get altogether, UK internships have been receiving an increasingly bad press in recent times. We investigate whether these allegations are justified, and whether or not the same is happening abroad …

Article by Rhiannon D.

This month, Fashion website ‘Fashion 156’ tweeted that the majority of their internships have been offered to international students rather than those from the UK. The reason for this, they claimed, was that overseas students were financially supported by their governments.

The series of tweets, some of which are featured in the above picture, sparked a debate between the company and UK students, the latter claiming that accommodation and travel expenses meant interning for nothing was impossible. Fashion 365 replied to that particular assertion by stating that they were “not able to offer paid internships. We are a small independent who support emerging talent.”

The revelation marks a new development in the debate surrounding unpaid internships. Are the same struggles being faced abroad for both companies and interns? And what does this mean for the future of UK interning?

Are UK internships ever paid?

Internships are seemingly the only way to break into certain industries, particularly ‘desirable’ ones such as fashion, media and publishing. In my own experience, my travel expenses and lunch have both been covered, on two separate occasions. However, no student that I spoke to received any payment beyond expenses during their work experience, nor did they receive government grants of any kind. Though, it is worth noting that the industry, the size of the company, length of the internship and whether or not you’re a graduate or a vocational part of a university course will also have a huge impact upon whether interns are paid, and by how much.

Are the bad-treatment myths true?

From the interns I spoke to, it would appear that UK interning is a complete lucky dip. While most revealed that they had been treated well, but were offered mundane tasks, others said they had felt like a “burden on the company”. One intern in particular revealed that after working 8-6 with no pay on a ‘trial week’ for a prospective full-time position, she was called into the office on the Friday and told that the job in question no longer existed.

She told GKBC that she later discovered that, “the woman has a reputation for similar things, but is very high up in the PR industry, so knows that people will jump at the chance to work with her”. The advice for interns appears to be if you want it, be willing to put 100% in, no matter what.

Is interning abroad any better?

Unfortunately, whatever pretense we have of greener grass for UK interns going abroad, the financial experience appears to be much the same. No intern I spoke to had received government support for voluntary internships; only being able to afford to do so because they had family or friends in the location, or had saved up from a part-time job. However, for compulsory internships abroad, as part of university degrees, some interns stated that they did receive funding.

It did however appear to be the case that whilst you may not be any more likely to receive financial support, overseas internships could be more useful for a CV and as an insight, as these two students, who worked in Paris and Abu Dhabi, stated:

“I thought that my work in Paris was more beneficial to me personally and to my CV, because it is something that stands out, enabled me to make the most of my second language, and it was an amazing experience to be immersed in another culture.”

“Working in a different country is a great learning curve as you learn how different cultures do business. Working in the UAE was a great eye opener into how business in the Middle East works”

Is anything likely to change?

This is where everyone could agree, and the short (but unfortunately not sweet) answer is no, unpaid internships will not become a thing of the past. Whether home or abroad, smaller companies maintain that they cannot always support interns on work experience, and whilst interns are willing to do whatever it takes to get it, they certainly won’t be getting any easier.

The long answer is to do whatever it takes, put in 100% and make it happen if you want something. But something many interns seem to forget is you have a choice. You can choose the companies you apply to, and what kind of contract they are asking for. If work is too much, you can speak to your boss. Whether or not an internship home or abroad is more beneficial depends completely on you and your career path. Apply for what really works for you, and you are likely to have a fantastic experience.


Rhiannon is a university student from London. She has just finished an internship in journalism, the career into which she hopes to enter. 

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