The value of internships

Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean at the University of Derby, asks, what is the value of an internship?

2018 marks the 30-year anniversary of the publication of David Lodge’s novel Nice Work, the final volume in his ‘Campus Trilogy’. This comic tale followed the fortunes of Robyn Penrose, a young female academic specialising in the 19th-century industrial novel, as she participated in an Industry Year Shadow Scheme. This government initiative facilitated Robyn and the boss of a local engineering firm, Vic Wilcox, work-shadowing each other at their respective places of employment. The comedy is in part derived from the alienation of both characters as they experience and seek to understand the other’s working life.

Arguably, though, the novel is increasingly as dated as the 19th-century canon which forms Robyn’s specialism. First, the focus in contemporary universities is rightly to provide the students rather than faculty with opportunities and experiences outside academia.

Second, work placements and employment opportunities extend beyond their once traditional homes in business and engineering, for example, and are now viewed as seminal within degrees in the humanities and creative arts.

Although as recently as 2014 the Times Higher Education reported that students in the arts, humanities and social sciences believed their degree programmes largely lacked such opportunities, here at the University of Derby, where we aspire as an applied University of today and for tomorrow, work placements and employability are a vital part of curricula in the creative arts and the humanities. In addition, the College of Arts, Humanities and Education retains enduring industry links – both cultural and creative, and not – which offer properly regulated employment opportunities and internships without the degree programmes.

Internships open valuable doors for many students. Not only do they provide crucial opportunities to network and build contacts, they enable students to apply their academic knowledge to real-life situations and working environments: experience for the CV and life-long memories are two key outcomes.

The University of Derby runs its own paid internship programme, which began in 2013, and to date has placed over 200 interns in roles ranging from film production to community engagement. The programme is an effective way for students and graduates to access short-term, valuable work experience. Some employers also use the internship programme as a pipeline for future recruitment and many of our previous interns have gone on to secure longer-term employment where they have completed their internship.

Work placements and employability are a vital part of curricula in the creative arts and the humanities 

For the traditional humanities and creative arts, this wide range of employment opportunities recognises that there is a need to catch the wave of rising demand for graduates with the employability skills to sustain the buoyant creative industry sector. As both The Creative Industries and the Arts Council have recently pointed out in trade reports, the latter one snappily entitled, Contribution of the arts and culture industry to the national economy: An update of our analysis of the macroeconomic contribution of the arts and culture industry to the national economy, the wider UK creative sector contributes several billion pounds per annum to the national economy and this figure is rising. Recognising this contribution must also frame the common debate, given life again by the Post-18 Education Funding Review, on the utility – typically defined in economic terms – of degrees in the creative arts and humanities.

Thirty years ago in Nice Work, Lodge encapsulated the tensions in this debate during the first meeting between Robyn and Vic. Set in Vic’s office, and with him incredulously wondering why a female academic who taught English Literature and ‘Women’s Studies’ had been sent to ‘J. Pringle & Sons Casting and General Engineering’, he blurted out: ‘D’you know much about business?’ Vic’s perception then, and one which is increasingly reflected again now, is that Robyn’s discipline, and related arts and humanities subjects, are luxuries, contributing little to the ‘real world’ and certainly without economic benefit and hard-edged business facing reality.

Not only do the statistics brought forward by The Creative Industries and the Arts Council give lie to that opinion, the embedding of industry links, the proliferation of regulated internships and employability experiences for the students on such degree programmes highlight a changed learning environment.               

Overall the point is, of course, that degree curricula in the creative arts and humanities must therefore be not only oriented upon the creative, the expressive, the epistemological, the historical, the literary and the critical. In other words, the traditional enrichments of the arts and humanities as subjects of academic study in their own right – but also upon industry-ready skills. Graduates’ skill set must now be a fusion of Robyn Penrose and Vic Wilcock and offer an employment horizon beyond what Charlotte Brontë, who Lodge quotes as a prelude to chapter one in Nice Work, termed in Shirley, ‘something unromantic as Monday morning.’