Tuition Fees and Unpaid Internships Cost Us All

It’s tough out there! The job market has never been more competitive and yet the opportunities have never been more precarious. Students and new graduates are fighting over unpaid internships hoping it will lead to illusory, highly coveted paying jobs. But I am afraid this is a lost cause.

Students (especially ‘millennial’ students) are often derided when we ask for anything. Even if all we’re asking for is a minimum wage paycheck. Yet long gone are the days where students can finance their education through government loans and summer jobs. 

Many of us do both, and tack on part-time year-round gigs, unpaid internships and lines of credits just to make it through. I know this first-hand having accumulated $150,000 of student debt myself despite a beefed up resume.

There are a million reasons why students have debt. Costly programs, limited personal resources, being forced to take unpaid internships, working for low wages in low paying careers, uninsured medical and health expenses, and cost of living in big cities were all factors that led to my $150K debt. But ultimately, there is no getting around the basic math that applies to all students…

Tuition fees are too damn high, and the wages are non-existent!


My work experience throughout my nine-years of post-secondary education largely included paid work for the public service and not-for-profits, but those opportunities are rare. We know now that a number of government departments continue to hire unpaid interns, and even progressive members of parliament and progressive organizations tout their unpaid or hardly-paid internship opportunities.

I have done a couple of those myself, because like most of my peers I have been guilty of buying into the idea that you can pay for experience.  Those opportunities went nowhere, and put me further in the hole. 

The truth is it is almost never worth paying for “experience”. The work is often that which ought to be covered by employment standards -- beginning with minimum wage and including a number of basic protections such as protections against discrimination, and health and safety. But even if you buy the idea the internships are meant to train students and new workers, the reality is that it trains a select few, and then leaves them high and dry.

Only certain students can afford the privilege of working unpaid. Those less fortunate find themselves taking on low-paying jobs outside their field of interest in order to make due. They fall further behind in academics and other markers of competitiveness.

When the privileged few are selected to gain these coveted unpaid training opportunities they are rarely hired on. Many complete multiple internships back-to-back as that’s all the work they can find. Perhaps the networks they have tapped into will produce some long-term benefit – as is the case when people meet people in any circumstance – but internships have not meant job creation. They have meant that employers hire interns year-after-year to save on hiring entry-level employees. 

And let’s not forget that employments standards legislation across Canada places the responsibility of training employees on the employer. Employees are not to lose wages for the sake of being trained. Unless they’re students, I suppose. 

I’ll be the first to admit that there are many who do not qualify for the credit necessary to enroll in particular programs, or in order to compete with more financially secure peers. But when the job opportunities are so few and far between, and the only work being advertised to young people is unpaid labour, decision-makers need to step back and consider the fundamentals.

Tuition fees are reaching astronomical levels and are not leading us to better wages and better opportunities. Rather universities are first in line to plug unpaid internships to fill co-operative education quotes, or boost the profile or their programs. They rarely stand with students to demand wages, only to collect our fees.

And it's students who are left to pay. We pay for fees and for experience, and we have nothing to show for it but red.  

The Canadian Intern Association is a not-for-profit organization that advocates against the exploitation of interns and aims to improve internship experiences. You can learn more about intern rights across Canada by consulting our Canadian Intern Rights Guide.

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