Some students who work long, unpaid college or university internships while paying high tuition fees say they feel exploited and that it’s time they got paid.

While unpaid internships have become a dirty concept in some parts of our economy, salary-free academic internships get a free pass because they happen within the confines of a college or university program where students learn in a real working environment for school credit. These internships are often known as practicums, work terms, work placements or clinical rotations.

They are also considered a rite of passage for many students in a tough job market who pay tuition not only for class instruction, but also for the chance to learn the ropes and prove their worth to potential employers.

'Unpaid work terms are really taking advantage of people who are desperate, who need entry into the workforce.'  — Ryan Murphy, Memorial University Student Union

"We’ve come to the point where young people essentially have to pay for experience,” says Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association.

It’s hard to hold down a paying job while giving your all to a full-time internship. So, as university tuition continues to balloon, unpaid mandatory work terms are a growing concern for students sinking deeper into debt. Tuition costs are expected to rise 13 per cent on average over the next four years, according to a recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

'It’s incredibly frustrating'

Tamara Oomen says the internships she did while studying social work in Toronto were rewarding.

But she says she clocked about 2,000 hours of unpaid time at hospitals and a nursing home working with seniors with mental health issues while she pursued two degrees and a diploma.

Even though training was involved, Oomen says she took on real social work cases and had to pay out of pocket for transportation when she did home visits with clients.

Oomen recently graduated with almost $20,000 in student debt — debt she believes she wouldn’t have if she had been paid even minimum wage for her internships.

"It’s incredibly frustrating because my date to start paying back my student loan is coming up soon and it’s not a very good job market," she said.

A crackdown on non-academic internships in Ontario put an end to unpaid gigs at popular magazines Toronto Life and The Walrus. Bell Canada has at least temporarily scrapped its unpaid internship program after a former intern sued the company for back pay.

Students take action

At Memorial University in St. John’s, the student union is calling for a crackdown on unpaid academic internships.

"Unpaid work terms are really taking advantage of people who are desperate, who need entry into the workforce," said the student union's Ryan Murphy.

The group is working on a campaign that aims to confront university, government and organizations over unpaid student internship programs "to see how we can go about solving this inequity," Murphy said.

Memorial University students in engineering and business programs are paid for their work placements, Murphy said, while many in female-dominated fields such as nursing, education and social work generally receive no compensation.

'Any time I thought about it not being a paid position, it would hurt me to know that I put in that much work.' — Victoria Holmes, Memorial University social work student

Memorial engineering student Sarah Shannon says her last work placement paid $30 an hour and she only had to pay the tuition equivalent to taking one course during that term. She says the university made it clear that for an engineering internship, "if we don't get paid, it doesn't count."

Fourth-year Memorial social work student Victoria Holmes said the discrepancy is "very unfair."

By the time she graduates, Holmes estimated, she'll have worked almost 1,000 hours in unpaid school internships. She enjoyed working with physically disabled children at a hospital during a placement last year, but maintains the system isn't fair.

"Any time I thought about it not being a paid position, it would hurt me to know that I put in that much work."

Holmes says she paid full tuition during her three-month work term even though she was only taking one course. To cover the bills, she worked 12-hour shifts on the weekend at a nursing home and another freelance gig on the side. She says the punishing schedule left her exhausted and feeling "like all odds are against me."

It pains Holmes to know that Memorial engineering students get a guaranteed salary while most social work internships are unpaid.

"I think they’re more highly valued than we are," she said.

Not all internships are equal

Memorial University says tuition costs vary during work terms because students only pay full fees when internships are considered equivalent to taking courses. In other cases, students pay only work placement fees, which tend to be lower.

When asked why some students are paid and others are not, Memorial explained that not all work placements are alike.

"There are internships that require students to become active employees, and internships where students are learning and not fully qualified or legally capable of performing the work that, as an example, a social worker or nurse would be doing," said Noreen Golfman, provost and vice-president (academic) pro tempore.

But Holmes said she was doing the work of a social worker during her internship, running two youth groups and taking on cases, even though she always had guidance.

"There was a lot of work in that time," she said. "There was never a time when I thought, 'Wow, I can understand why it’s not paid.'"

Regulating academic internships?

Seaborn says she often hears from dissatisfied student interns.

'It would be nice to receive money for what you're doing.' — Kara Shannon, Dalhousie University nursing program graduate

"They feel they’re doing the work of paid employees and they should be paid."

The association is working on a policy statement for Ontario, and possibly other provinces and the federal government, on how post-secondary internships can be better regulated.

Seaborn said the statement may include recommendations like asking academic institutions to provide tuition discounts or financial assistance during work terms, and work with employers to offer students more paid practicums. She would also like to see a cap on the number of unpaid hours allowed for certain work terms.

The federal government says academic internships are a provincial responsibility because education is regulated by the provinces.

'I just don’t think it would happen'

Recent nursing graduate Kara Shannon did clinical rotations throughout her four-year nursing degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She paid full tuition but got no compensation during those rotations.

"It would be nice to receive money for what you're doing," Shannon said, adding that nursing students never had the workload of a registered nurse. "Nobody in the programs was being paid, so I was OK with it."

She doesn't think the situation will change in fields like nursing where practicums are done largely at public institutions.

"The [provincial] government would have to pay us and the government is so controlled by their budget and they already struggle to keep within their limits already," she said.

"I just don’t think it would happen."