Students taking part in work experience or internships are being exploited, spending the majority of their time undertaking mundane tasks like making tea, according to a new study. On top of this, three quarters of workers are not even reimbursed for expenses.

71% of people questioned felt unfulfilled by their work experience, says the study, carried out by students from the University of Westminster.

The research also found that nine in ten placements were unpaid. Despite being a small scale study, the findings are worrying for students that are facing stiff competition as they prepare to enter a fiercely-competitive job market after graduating.

Mark Stow, Employment Opportunities Manager at the University of Lincoln, explained that a large part of the responsibility is on the shoulders of the student themselves.

Stow says that companies often don’t know what students want out of the experience, and explains that students should make clear from the start what they want to achieve: “There will be some employers that are afraid of putting too much responsibility on graduates for fear of claims of a different kind of exploitation [i.e. cheap labour], so it is the responsibility of the graduate to put the employers mind at rest and state that they are not afraid to do some ‘real work’.”

Despite the danger of not getting the most out of work placements, Stow says that work experience can be very valuable and can offer a foothold in the job market. He says that as well as developing skills and experience, internships also open doors and provide contacts in your chosen industry: “Approximately 80% of job opportunities are never advertised, and so having such useful links is almost essential as a more creative approach to job search strategies, and as a key to unlocking the ‘hidden job market’.”

One work place that has enthusiastically embraced students wanting to gain experience is the Hub gallery in Sleaford. Learning Officer at the gallery, Janie Lismore, emphasised the values that the student, the company, and the relevant industry, can all get from a student internship.

“From the perspective of the organisation, hosting students on work experience encourages fresh talent into the business we are in. We may not benefit directly in the long term, but if the student chooses to enter the industry as a result of a successful placement then we have done our bit to support and promote the wider industry and the process of lifelong learning,” said Lismore.

Lismore goes on to explain that the experience the Hub offers reflects the suggestions of Mark Stow, in that the student is asked to provide feedback and reflect on the experience they have had. She also explains that, to help improve the impact of the internship, the Hub has recently employed a member of staff who take specific responsibility for coordinating placements, which she says has greatly improved the management of student placements.

Stow says that if a student is unhappy with the experience they are getting, they should firstly approach their employer and make clear what they hope to gain. If the problem is not resolved, or the student needs further advice, he advises that someone in the Opportunities department of the university will be more than willing to help.