There has been much discussion on the Twitters lately about unpaid student labour. I’ve been thinking about it and participating in some of the discussions and I have no answers to this dilemma. I do however have some thoughts that can’t be fully articulated in tweets.
For me it all began with seeing this tweet
which prompted a discussion in the Australian GLAM context.
At the same time this tweet
was causing a Twitterstorm in the US in the GLAMsphere and beyond. I’m no expert but the US and Australian contexts are not direct parallels, my understanding is that internships are a bigger problem in the US. Certainly many of the responses to this second tweet by @adam22 focused on the exploitative nature, as well as classist and racist implications of several-month long unpaid internships. These implications are transferable to the degree-required unpaid student placement discussion in Australia (as prompted by the first tweet from @lissertations). Unpaid placements are the cause of hardship for many and represent a demonstration of privilege that the profession can ill afford. Just as Alissa felt the need to clarify her thoughts, I too feel the need to articulate more clearly my thoughts on this issue.
The sprawling threads of the discussions have been appearing in my feed, the following is my summary of some of the points that many people seem to agree on:
- Placements are an expectation of ALIA for course accreditation, as part of producing industry ready graduates
- Placements provide an opportunity for students to access to premier or niche institutions that they might not otherwise easily gain access to
- Placements offer the opportunity to gain experience if a student does not have much; or diversify skillsets and sample other sectors for those who are already working in the industry, eg. a student working at a public library can do a placement at an academic library
- Many people (though not all) have a great time during their placements, applying knowledge, gaining experience, networking and sometimes landing paid work
- Many people have struggled to manage work/leave/caring/financial/travel commitments in order to complete their unpaid placements
All in all I think most people seem to agree that placements offer a valuable experience to students, I agree with all of the points above. However I also think that compulsory unpaid placements place an unfair burden on the student. As someone who did/does not have a great deal of experience in GLAM I really needed every bit of practical experience I could get throughout my studies. My degree required a three week placement, and I knew I needed to complete it to flesh out my resume. While I had and excellent placement experience, it did involve some serious family wrangling to ensure my primary carer duties were covered.
Last year I wrote about how I wished I could have had more practical experience in GLAM school, (fully recognising that further placements would have made my DE study much harder), so I love the idea from @librarianmer suggesting embedding practical coursework in the form of real projects for real libraries. This would be super valuable to students.
As I said I don’t have the answers, I just strongly feel that there should be more options available to students to gain credit for the industry experience portion of their qualification. The compulsory unpaid bit is the sticking point*. Projects for real world institutions, recognition of prior learning for paid work, cross-unit experiences in a current workplace, higher duties in a current workplace, specific project work outside of normal duties in a current workplace, secondment to another institution….these are all options that I feel could be explored. Surely these kinds of options would not require a significantly higher amount of administrative work to facilitate? Voluntary placements do not have to be banished, they could always remain an option for those who have the means and are not currently employed, or those who wish to look outside of their current workplace.
@datalibsam wrote a great post which I think provides a valuable perspective, outlining the investment a host institution makes in a placement student and also offered the following suggestion for nutting out a way forward
I’d love to see this happen. If everyone who has a vested interest could be represented in a group discussion I’m sure some workable solutions could be proposed.
*Different institutions have varying placement requirements. The institution I studied at strongly preferred the three weeks to be completed in a block. I once had a conversation with someone from the institution who said that credit for the four day study visit and three week placement were rarely given to students because the institution wanted students to diversify their industry experience. While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment to get out there and see how others are doing their GLAM thing, I do think there should be some flexibility for students to demonstrate/attain that diversity of experience.