The current debate about the unpaid work experience being offered by the supermarket giants as part of the confused array of employment programmes created by Iain Duncan Smith has thrown a spotlight on the Catch 22 facing too many unemployed young people. Employers expect experience, yet you need a job to gain that experience.
Whether the sort of thoughtless impersonal screed given by Asda to those who laboured for free for a month over Christmas, as shown on last night's Channel 4 News, will impress many employers remains to be seen, though it is equally pretty hard to argue that they would be more impressed with those who spent the time watching daytime TV.
Yet there is one sector where more could clearly be done to develop work experience in people who should be better prepared for employment - universities.Yesterday's Wilson Review report made the modest recommendation that
Ideally, every full-time undergraduate student should have the opportunity to experience a structured, university-approved undergraduate internship during their period of study. Where such internships are paid, government should examine the feasibility of supporting companies that host students through a tax credit or grant mechanism. Where internships are unpaid, universities should use their ‘OFFA funds’ to support eligible students rather than condone a policy that could inhibit social mobility.
This is a pretty crucial first step towards solving a problem where too many graduates drift aimlessly home after completing a degree, with too little useful work experience and little sense of where they can best make a contribution in the world of work. If the state is to subsidise their education - and they are to face huge debts - it is not unreasonable to expect that they have gained some decent work skills in the process.
Of course, there will be objections to this proposition. Some faculties with little experience of such activity will see it as not their responsibility. While more vocational and professional courses like medicine and law will see experience as a key part of the course, arts and social sciences will not. But if they are to continue to appeal to undergraduates and to convince of their relevance in the wider world, it is crucial that they embrace this recommendation as wholeheartedly as those who are doing it already.
There is plenty that is pedestrian and potentially bureaucratic in the Wilson Review. But if nothing else is advanced as a result of its deliberations, it will have served a useful purpose. Universities should start to think creatively about how they can play their part in supporting their students' futures. After all, they will be repaying their fees as a postgraduate income levy once they do enter the workplace. Given the cost of the loans system, the sector has a material interest in ensuring they do so fairly promptly after graduation.