Ryerson’s new grant raises questions about unpaid internships at the U of O

If you’ve ever been a student, then you know the importance of “getting your foot in the door,” or “building your professional network.” It’s practically ingrained into you as you leave high school that experience is everything. In my last year of high school, I worked unpaid at a hospital for a full semester, but never questioned it. After all, experience would be everything when I got into the “real world.”

It turns out that, in this respect, not a lot changes when you arrive at post-secondary. There’s still a premium placed on experience, and unpaid placements definitely still exist. But one key change does happen—financial responsibility. Although I could afford an unpaid placement while I was living under my parents’ roof, the game completely changes when tuition, textbooks, rent, groceries, and other life expenses come into play.

With this exact dilemma in mind, on Oct. 19 the Ryerson Student Union (RSU) introduced a grant that students working upwards of 80 hours per semester can apply for. Not only is this grant is the first of its kind for a Canadian university, but the cost to bring it to life won’t result in any changes to tuition fees.

With this idea being introduced to Canadian post-secondary campuses, new issues emerge. Will this idea become standard for university student unions? Will it be enough to counter the culture of unpaid internships?

Only time will tell. But until the results from this pilot project are in, this week the Fulcrum took a look at the state of unpaid internships at the University of Ottawa, and whether this solution is one that could be brought to our campus.

Why implement an unpaid internship grant?

Daniel Lis, vice-president education at the RSU, knew he wanted to bring this grant to life at Ryerson before he even had the job. The idea came to him while he was working as an assistant to his predecessor, and soon became one of his campaign points when he decided to run for an executive seat on the student union.

“You have students who are contributing a lot of hours of their week, on top of their studies, to experiential work,” Lis said. “They’re taking away time from their lives which they could put towards an actual paid job, so the idea is to help support students while they take that on.”

The grant at Ryerson is a two-tier support system, with part-time students working 80 to 160 hours in a semester part time being eligible for $500, and those working more than 160 hours full-time in a semester being eligible for $1,000. Since the program is in its pilot year, the availability caps out at 60 full-time and 40 part-time grants. But Lis hopes that, through talking with the first round of grant recipients, the RSU will be able to garner more external support and expand the grant for the next year.

Although these grants constitute a large sum of money, according to Lis there will be no changes to tuition fees as the grant funds will all come from the levy and external donors.

“One of the reasons we’re following up with students who are receiving a grant this semester is to see if there are employers who have a pattern of employing students unpaid,” Lis noted.

“We could be reaching out to them, saying that we understand you can’t pay these employees at a full rate, but maybe you’d consider donating to this grant.”

While Dina Elleithy, a common law student at the U of O, called her unpaid placement “one of the highlights of her degree,” she had to take three weeks off of her part-time job in order to complete the internship. Although the trade-off was worth it for Elleithy, if a similar grant was available at the U of O she says she definitely would have applied to make up for her lost income.

Another U of O student in nursing, who requested to comment anonymously due to their placement circumstance, says that they worked eight- to 12-hour shifts without pay for the last two years of their nursing degree.

“We take on more and more responsibilities that range from personal support worker duties to taking on the full care of patients. It’s learning, but it’s mostly practicing,” they said. “Sounds like a co-op right? Nope. Nursing students have never been paid for clinical placements.”

This nursing student also believes that unpaid work adds insult to injury in the case of their program, due to the high cost of simply enrolling in nursing.

“In my context, nursing tuition comes with a lot of extra fees, which make it one of the most expensive programs at the school. To add, everyone in Canada knows that we need more nurses in the workforce,” they noted.

“I absolutely think that the school and potentially the organizations that benefit from these unpaid positions should give something back to the students.”

When I told Monica Tam, a fourth-year criminology student and unpaid intern at the U of O, about the RSU grant, she echoed the other students’ sentiments that having something similar on campus would be “extremely helpful.”

“It’s really good to get the experience of field placements, because you’re getting out into the workforce,” Tam said. “But it can be difficult because unlike a lot of students you don’t get paid, but you’re putting in essentially the same amount of work.”

This situation alone isn’t ideal, but Tam says that things get even more complicated when you add a part-time job to the mix.

“You have to be in a good place financially to really do the internship, just because it takes up to 40 hours per week, so it can be really difficult to keep a part-time job with that.”

According to Katherine Marshall’s report for Statistics Canada on Employment Patterns of Post-secondary Students, over half of students are employed while completing their post-secondary education—up from only one-quarter between 1970 and 1990.

The report further shows that, although working during school is a common phenomenon, students on average earn well below the poverty line—between $6,000 and $7,000 during the school year. Tuition is outpacing the rate of average incomes and inflation, and on top of this the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance reports that only half of undergraduates report receiving financial assistance from their parents.

With these factors combined, and the continued presence of unpaid internships on campus, it’s not hard to see the need for a grant to offset the costs of working for free.

Could our student union bring this grant to the U of O?

With students expressing interest in the RSU grant, the obvious question becomes whether this can be implemented here in Ottawa. In an interview with the Fulcrum, Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) president Hadi Wess agreed that a program like Ryerson’s to support unpaid internships is needed on our campus.

“I’m not sure if I want to say it needs to be the exact same thing,” Wess said of bringing the RSU grant to the U of O. “But it’s about creating an opportunity for people, and also making sure that people are not doing work that they are not compensated or paid for.”

The SFUO does not currently have any programs that are explicitly designed to support unpaid interns, but Wess did note that the federation’s Student of the Month scholarship and SFUO volunteer gala scholarships could be options for students who are seeking compensation for unpaid work.

Wess also spoke about a motion passed at the latest Board of Administration meeting, which calls for the establishment of an opportunity program for students. However, Wess explained that not all of the roles offered in this program will be paid, and says despite this the SFUO would “try (their) best to make sure students are not doing work that they’re not being compensated for.”

With a string of financial issues plaguing the SFUO, it’s unclear as to whether the federation has the capacity to fund a grant partially from their levy as the RSU did. But Wess emphasizes that the university administration also has a role in supporting unpaid interns.

“We all know the history of university administration in raising tuition fees … I do think that when we’re doing these negotiations with the administration, they need to have a lot of open-mindedness to working with students and to dedicate the money that students are paying back to students.”

Wess also admits that the SFUO could do more work to liaise with different faculties to push for more regulation on unpaid internships for degree completion, as seen in some faculties at Ryerson.

So, if the federation finds itself in a position to introduce something similar, what can the U of O learn from Ryerson?

Although the RSU has the grant up and running now, it wasn’t without obstacles. Lis says that the project wasn’t always about a grant, in fact the idea was to create a joint effort between employers and students to “partially subsidize the jobs that students were doing.”

However, the RSU soon found this approach to be “unrealistic,” and instead began work on the grant.

Another challenge in the RSU’s process was determining what information was to be collected in the grant application, given the legal issues around unpaid and uncredited internships.

“Students who are working unpaid and are not getting a credit, they are technically working illegally,” Lis explained. “So if we have access to that information and are providing a grant, then are not reporting that to authorities, we could be held liable for assisting an employer who’s breaking the law.”

Lis noted that the RSU is also working to use this grant program to raise awareness about worker rights, so that students don’t find themselves in situations outside of the law.

It remains to be seen how effective the RSU’s efforts will be, but Wess thinks that anything that has proven to be effective on other campuses is worth bringing to the table.

“If a lot of students are interested in this and it’s been successful in other campuses, I have no problem at all doing the lobbying or negotiation on behalf of students.”

Keeping our unpaid interns afloat

Not all internships are equal, and for some the trade-off between experience and money is worth it. But for others, unpaid placements can exert huge financial pressures, or even act as a barrier to gaining experience and completing degree work.

Although it’s unclear whether a grant could become a reality for the U of O, there are several approaches the university can take in the short-term.

First of all, having faculties introduce more regulation into the type of internships that qualify for degree work could raise the standard for companies who want to leverage students’ skills. Not to mention that mandating payment for all required internships could attract students across Ontario to study at the U of O.

There are also programs already running on our campus that other faculties’ internships could be modelled after. For example, Elleithy’s internship was condensed into three weeks, and she says that instead of doing three weeks’ worth of work she spent the majority of her time shadowing and learning from a mentor at the placement.

At the Telfer School of Management, students can apply for unpaid internships for credit via the Connexions program. However, unlike many unpaid placements, this program only requires one seven-hour shift per week, which may be helpful to students looking to also work a paid, part-time job while in school.

Clearly, there are steps already being taken at the U of O that could be applied on a larger scale to support unpaid interns. Making these unpaid internships more educational rather than work-heavy, shortening the time required per week, or simply tightening faculty regulations around unpaid work are all ways our campus can tackle the issue right now.

Grant or no grant, the challenges facing unpaid interns on our campus must be mitigated. The implementation of the RSU grant proves there’s demand among students for a solution—now, the ball is in the U of O’s court.