There is a controversial policy being discussed that could change the university experience forever.
In late June, Premier Kathleen Wynne spoke highly of a proposed plan to make co-op or “experiential learning” mandatory for all post-secondary students. A panel of “business and education experts” was set up in Dec. 2015 to develop an “integrated strategy to better link the education system with the future job needs of the province’s economy.”
At this point, there were no details about how this would be implemented or what any of this structure would look like. The panel’s report recommends the Ontario government funds more placements.
The Ontario Undergraduate Students Alliance, which represents McMaster students, issued a press release in support of the mandatory experiential learning idea. In a paper dated spring 2016, OUSA calls for an elimination of unpaid internships.
These are contradictory actions: flooding the market with people who must complete experiential learning opportunities would mean less paid opportunities because employers know students must do this. There is not enough money to pay interns currently, so adding more will compound the problem.
Nowhere in their press release does OUSA mention the impact this policy could have on unpaid internships. Maybe it got lost in the shuffle, but students need better advocacy than this.
If OUSA is one of the checks and balances for government education policy, they dropped the ball here. Realizing the impact this policy could have does not take incredible abilities – shit, I’m not paid to advocate on education policy and I could figure it out.
Here’s the situation with unpaid internships right now. Under current Ministy of Labour laws, unpaid internships are legal when the employee is not paid the minimum wage for the hours you work. Some internships may give honourariums but are still classified as unpaid.
These are only allowed under certain rules. It has to be educational (usually meaning it is coordinated through a post-secondary program), it must have a benefit to the intern (I would hope so?), it must not replace someone’s paid job, the employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained, and the intern must not be promised a job at the end of the training period.
In 2014, the Ministry of Labour started to crackdown on illegal unpaid internships, forcing Toronto Life and The Walrus to fire their interns.
If Ontario adopts this plan, hundreds of thousands of students would have to find placements.
To develop the internships necessary to meet the demands of an ever-rising post-secondary population, employers will create opportunities, and it is highly unlikely these would be paid.
Students have to do placements, and employers do not have piles of cash sitting around to pay them.
Employers will welcome this idea with open arms because damn, it is free labour that has an inherent grasp of technology that the previous generations lack. Every workplace can use someone with modern technology skills.
But internships, if meaningful, are time consuming. This policy would remove time for people to earn money to pay for their education. While the current internship structure favours students from upper-middle class situations because they can afford to skip the income, mandatory experiential learning does not solve the problem.
Are we really “leveling the playing field” if you are eliminating players because some cannot afford school?
Students need advocacy more than ever and that is why we pay $2.90 each for OUSA. Some could say OUSA had not understood or considered the impact on unpaid internships yet but that is not good enough. The organization had a policy about this issue and did not follow it when they issued a press release.
Situations like these are where OUSA should be stepping in, not sitting back.