The news week started with Nick Clegg championing the cause of equality of access to educational opportunity. The deputy prime minister responded to Oxbridge’s intention to charge the maximum fee of £9,000 – something only made possible by his party reneging on a campaign promise – by threatening that it would be banned from doing so unless the two institutions accepted students from poorer backgrounds. It ended with the prime minister’s party being exposed for narrowing access to work experience through selling internships. Since the raising of tuition fees last year, the onus has been on the government to show that it is going to do all it can to make up for it by improving educational and career opportunities for young people. While piecemeal attempts have been encouraging, the auctioning off of internships for vast sums of money that most people can only dream of affording shows that though the Conservative party hides behind the rhetoric of equality of opportunity, its fundraising members are still largely drawn from a narrow social and economic elite. In selling work experience places to fund itself, the Conservative party is re-affiriming a principle that David Cameron promised he had long since banished – that wealth and connections are the surefire way to get ahead in life. These interns will not have had to display one ounce of merit or ability to get their place; their only qualification will be that they have a rich and politically well-connected parent.
The practice of selling internships is one thing, but the party’s behaviour becomes all the more disgusting when one considers where the interns will be working. It is telling that the internships that went under auction were not for charities or social enterprises or indeed any institution that seeks to put more into society that it takes out. The lucky recipients will instead spend their time in boutique banks whose services are only available to a select few; expensive fashion houses and department stores, and the investment corporations and hedge funds that did so much to encourage the risky behaviour that precipitated the economic crisis which has brought misery for millions of people. In holding this auction, the Tories are not only endorsing the idea that young people should work for free but that they should pay for the privilege. Internships can be invaluable for young people to learn skills that cannot be taught in the classroom or lecture theatre, but there needs to be a better, fairer way of organizing access to them; one that is based on merit and ability, not on ability to pay. There are so many ways this could be done – internships as part of back-to-work programmes for the ever-growing number of the youth unemployed, for example – and it is a depressing sign of the Conservative’s disconnection from oridnary people that it was deemed appropriate to auction them to fund their own coffers. Students of the future will already face raised tuition fees, they should not face the same financial challenge when it comes to getting a placement.