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Tuition theft: Ross Perlin in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Chris Webb25 April 2011

Internships, those much-touted indicators of "work experience" in the post-industrial economy, come at a heavy cost for students—particularly those who still pay tuition while performing unwaged work. As Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, argues in his latest piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, colleges and universities are complicit in this process of tuition-theft, commonly known as "a foot in the door."

At institutions across the country, full-time, unpaid internships required for graduation are often charged at or near the normal tuition rate. In many cases, students seeking to avoid this expense are not permitted to find and complete the needed internship on their own. The result is tantamount to outsourcing part of a student's degree while still sticking them with the bill (which can run upward of $14,000).  

"We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us," goes the old Soviet joke. Today, interns pretend to "advance their careers" by slaving over photocopiers and coffee machines as they continue to pay rising tuition fees. Colleges, writes Perlin, "should face up to their role in a runaway internship boom that is hurting many students and their families." Yet there seems to be a hesitancy on the part of higher education institutions to arm students with any knowledge of workplace rights, and a similar hesitancy by students to demand pay or dedicated training. Perlin raises the urgent question of reforming this intern-industry-academic complex:

If academic institutions have a responsibility to level the internship playing field, at the very least for their own students, where should they start?

Beyond subsidizing living and expense costs for student interns, Perlin rightly argues that institutions should take an active role in protecting their students and "promoting alternative paths into the workforce ... rather than let unpaid office work become the default." Resisting the logic of unpaid internships is part of a broader challenge to the normalized exploitation of neoliberalism, which already consumes vast amounts of unwaged labour in order to reproduce itself. While the pro-business bent of many educational institutions makes this position unlikely, it should necessarily inform any student-led reform of the intern-industry. The strength of student mobilizations across Europe and parts of North America detailed in Verso's new title Springtime: The New Student Rebellions perhaps provides some hope of a movement able to tackle questions of labor, learning and resistance beyond the academy.

Visit the Chronicle of Higher Education to read the article in full.

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