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Overdue: A Formal Internship Policy in India That Protects Its Students

Overdue: A Formal Internship Policy in India That Protects Its Students

The lack of a framework specifying reasonable working hours puts students in a vulnerable position, and could lead to burnout and loss of productivity. Photo: moritz320/pixabay.

“Ira was a final year masters’ student on her first internship in Delhi. She hailed from a small town and had travelled several hundred kilometres to do this internship. As she hurried to finish entering the data into the computer, her eyes glanced at the watch, which was inching towards 8 pm. She had applied to nearly 50 places, before finally a professor wrote back expressing interest. While she was not being paid for this internship, her peers and seniors had suggested that even unpaid internships would give her with recommendation letters to secure next opportunities.”

Ira is a fictional character but her story and experiences will resonate with many students in India in the middle to final years of their college education.

Internships are considered to be a potential bridge between employers and “still-green” graduates, with host organisations getting access to motivated pre-professionals for short-term projects – and students acquiring practical, communication and teamwork skills. In a recent India Skills Report, produced by the All India Council for Technical Education  (AICTE), around 85% of students in India sought internship training, indicating high demand in this area. AICTE is a national-level advisory council that conducts surveys on the facilities available for technical education and promotes development in a coordinated and integrated manner.

India is the world’s second largest producer of undergraduate and graduate STEM students: around 9 lakh students were enrolled in post-graduate courses, and around 35 lakh in total at various levels (certificate, diploma, PG diploma, undergraduate, post-graduate, MPhil and PhD), in India in 2018-2019. This large and young workforce is attributed to be a key driver in India’s economy. However, only 47% of that workforce was considered to be employable. In addition, the volume of employable talent, so to speak, also varies widely across various Indian states, with Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh ranking highest in 2020. While India’s large and young workforce presents a huge opportunity for economic growth, this low employability represents a major impediment towards realising it.

Effective training, adequate opportunities for training, conductive environment and a reasonable workload are some of the factors required to harness the full potential of internships. However, internships remain an unregulated sector not covered under either the Industrial Employment Act 1946 or the Minimum Wages Act 1948. As a result, in most cases, interns are not legally entitled to minimum wages or modes of legal redressal that otherwise apply to permanent employees. The lack of any framework for duration, work-hours or type of work also puts students in a very vulnerable position within the host organisation.

Recently, two doctoral students conducted a survey among students from five engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu regarding their internship experiences. All interview participants admitted the potential benefits of internships, including “providing opportunities for development of career skills and helping students with full-time job acquisition”. However, their main issues included “uncomfortable timings, unresponsive officials, too much work and short internship times to get sufficient exposure”.

“During my internships, the working hours were variable, they depended on what kind of work it entailed and whether it was paid or unpaid,” Alisha Pathak, a former postgraduate student at IISER Pune, said. “While many lab-based internships were like full-time jobs, they were rarely independent projects and had no clear deliverables. Reading/scoping based projects had fewer hours and defined outputs like a review paper.”

AICTE released an internship policy in 2018 that mandated engineering students to do internships during their four-year programme. The policy addresses many important points regarding the duration, monitoring and evaluation of internships. However, these guidelines are mainly intended for AICTE-approved institutes. In addition, making an internship mandatory is likely to have unintended consequences because it assumes every student has ways and the means to pay for an unpaid internship.

“It is very difficult or almost impossible for students from lower middle-class backgrounds to settle far away from home for unpaid internships. This leaves many eligible students inexperienced at the professional level, thus making them less eligible for future job application,” Laboni Mahanta, a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, wrote for LiveWire on August 4, 2020.

These issues stem from a paucity of universal guidelines for conducting or facilitating internships in India. There is also a need for transparency on how internships are advertised. In many cases, recruiters mislead students as to the remuneration and work involved during an internship, and there is really no way for a student to assess the credibility of such claims before signing up.

In addition, only 60% of students are aware of the government’s internship schemes, stoking further concerns regarding their outreach and advertisement. Creating a credible, unified, knowledge exchange portal with information regarding expected remuneration, skills valued most by specific employers, etc. would this be invaluable. While there are a few private platforms for internships and training programmes, several students have also posted their experiences with fraudulent companies hosted on such private forums.

More collaborations between colleges and industry could also help to meet the skilling needs, but “the industry needs to be incentivised to run training cum internship programs for blue collar workers & engineers,” Ravindra Kumar, the chief human resource officer of Tata Motors, said in the India Skills Report. For example, Haryana already provides a wide range of incentives to business organisations, including interest subsidies and employment generation subsidies, and companies that provide employment in rural areas/local persons.

Further, it’s notable that women – who only account for around 20% of the workforce in India – fared significantly better than men on a National Employability Test (based on business communication, critical thinking, numeral reasoning and learning agility and some other parameters). This indicates a need to develop internship policies geared towards women specifically.

The advent of the fourth industrial revolution has disrupted and continues to disrupt almost every sector and industry. In this scenario, emerging technologies are likely to drive economic change and innovation competencies. Enabling internships in these emerging and interdisciplinary areas could be another focus area for the government, industry and academic bodies.

The emphasis on internships in the National Education Policy 2020 is a welcome change in this regard, particularly with the provision of internship opportunities with “local industry, businesses, artists, crafts persons, etc., as well as research internships ” for students at higher educational institutes. However, at present, there are no specific guidelines in place to facilitate or enable these internships.

Several developed countries have policies to ensure inclusive internships or specific regulations addressing safety, code of conduct and grievance redressal. For example, open-market internships or internships that have no formal connection to recognised educational or training courses often come under the scanner for being the least regulated and are banned in several counties, including France and China. The EU also recently called for a stop to unpaid internships. Such mechanisms are currently lacking in most developing countries, including India.

Internships can be a powerful way to bridge education and employment, and can also help boost the economy by improving the size of the employable population. On the flip side, the lack of regulation can lead to low-quality internships and the exploitation of vulnerable sections, resulting in longer term social damage apart from the economic impact. With India currently in the throes of a massive economic slowdown, an evidence-based internship policy could help harness one of India’s biggest strengths: our youth.

Surat Saravanan is currently a senior research associate with the Atal Incubation Centre-CCMB. Suryesh K. Namdeo is a programme officer for the DST-STI Policy Fellowship Programme at the DST-Centre for Policy Research, IISc.

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