Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Just a bit more on fee for placement...

I've noticed a fair amount of discussion in the media recently on what is being presented as a growing "trend": organizations and businesses that place students and recent graduates in internships for a fee.

Best I can figure, the Wall Street Journal started the ball rolling with "Buying Your Kid an Internship? It'll Cost You" (and then followed it up online on their blog, The Juggle). Gawker waxed indignant and then the ball was batted around the blogosphere and elsewhere for awhile.

Back in August, On Point Radio out of Boston picked it up with a show on "Paying to Work for Free" -- in large part revisiting the WSJ article and the main players cited. I'd earlier blogged on this topic when another National Public Radio show did a program on this "controversy" in March.

A couple things have jumped out at me in the interim.

As far as the media outlets are concerned, University of Dreams seems to be the poster child for this trend, which means they suffer the majority of bric-bats but also receive unparalleled exposure and publicity. I have a feeling they're suffering through this quite happily.

And I don't want to rehash the pros & cons of such arrangements, which are laid out pretty well by the players interviewed and detailed in the various shows and articles (and in an August New York Times article), as much as make a few observations.

I was first introduced to the University of Dreams as a provider of international internships. And London, Hong Kong, etc placements are seemingly always mentioned (as the draw they are). And yet I have yet to read or hear any discussion in these contexts of how fee-for-placement organizations and companies dominate the field of international internships.

Even more distressing for me, as someone who works with students day to day, is the fact that fee for placement has come to dominate international volunteer placements as well.

Do a Google search, browse the latest volunteer or internship posting on Idealist -- what you'll find are almost exclusively placements offered by companies for a fee.

Recently I've tried to become a little more active in the Building Bridges Coalition (active in a passive sense, such as it is: participating in a conference call discussing future plans & direction, reading materials and information prepared by the Coalition, etc). The stated goals of the BBC, right there on its homepage (and currently under revision), are:
It is a consortium of leading international volunteer organizations, universities and colleges, corporations, and government agencies working collaboratively towards the following goals:
  • Double the number of international volunteers sent abroad annually by 2010
  • Improve the quality of international volunteer service
  • Maximize the positive impacts of international volunteer service in communities around the world
More details on those goals -- and how the BBC aims to achieve them -- can be found one click in.

But nowhere in these goals and strategies, and nowhere (that I can recall) in the circulating drafts of the revised mission statement, can be found a discussion of the cost of volunteering and the need to address questions of expense (from all perspectives). It seems rather baffling considering what a stumbling block it is to achieving... well, all of the goals.

It's this gap in the discussion -- the seeming inability for us as a community to explicitly address and ask for an accounting -- that I find most disheartening. Those of a conspiratorial mindset would look at the members of the BBC and note the preponderance of providers on the rolls (and, for that matter, study abroad [which internships programs are often bundled with for university & college students] can be revenue positive, very positive, for academic institutions).

I'm not so inclined. I think this is the model that has developed. And it's a good one for many people: providers, clients, and businesses & communities (that receive interns and volunteers). It is the model that has come to dominate because anything else is incredibly difficult (and let's call it outright: expensive, in time and treasure). But until another, sustainable (and sustained) model is offered, pay-to-play is going to predominate.

I just wish we could talk about it a little more. Or at least would think to...

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