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Auctioning internships to most privileged is a step too far

A leading champion of work experience has condemned firms for selling internships to the highest bidder at a recent Conservative fundraising event.

At the Tories’ annual Black and White Party last week, leading City and PR firms auctioned intern places at their companies to raise funds for the party. According to the Mail on Sunday, millionaire Conservative supporters paid about £3,000 each for their children to have the chance to do work experience at the firms.

Among the internships on offer were five in City businesses, auctioned for a combined £14,000; a week at PR giant Bell Pottinger and two weeks at society favourite The Tatler.

Mike Hill, chief executive of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, which runs the National Council for Work Experience, said the event was "extremely demoralising for the majority of struggling graduates out there".

"It’s bad enough that organisations find people to work unpaid by labelling a position as an internship, but to sell the experience to the highest bidder is one step too far," he said.

"A work placement should be open to everyone and selection based on talent. By favouring those most privileged, the experience goes to the people who've got the money, and the industry doesn't get the right person for it – they just get someone who can afford it – reducing rather than widening their talent pipeline."

Hill said that companies considering this approach should think carefully about whether they want to restrict recruitment to only the wealthy and if it is actually more beneficial to open up to the full cadre of innovative, enterprising new entrants. "It’s a no brainer policy decision – companies need talent not nepotism," he said.             

"Work experience opportunities should be advertised, such as on the Graduate Talent Pool website, allowing a wide range of people to consider what is available. We advise people seeking internships to contact universities or businesses directly to understand what is being offered and the terms involved. This type of practice is in the minority and there are many exceptional schemes out there."

The 900 guests at the Black and White Party paid a minimum of £400 a head. The auction was revealed in the week prime minister David Cameron (pictured) defended his Big Society mission, part of which focuses on more private and voluntary sector involvement in tackling worklessness. Yesterday Cameron answered critics who believe the public and voluntary sector cuts mean the concept is undeliverable.

Hill pointed out that many companies provide excellent internships. Among those shortlisted for the NCWE’s own awards 2011 are John Lewis, Panasonic, Cancer Research UK, Porsche Cars GB and the Co-operative Group.