Postgrad internships an education gimmick

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 13 July 2012

Internships are a fantastic way for students to gain real world experience. Conversely, it makes sense for employers to employ interns – not just because they are cheap but also because they are often highly motivated and creative.

However, what does not make any sense is for government to arrange internships for postgraduate students. Yet the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has found $2.1 million to do just that.

Seventy companies will receive up to $30,000 of taxpayers’ money for each student they employ for six months to do “innovative research and development (R&D) work”. Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce’s rationale is that students will “get valuable work experience in a commercial environment that will help them find suitable employment after their studies”.

Fair enough, but if internships are that valuable, students will apply for them on their own without needing government interference.

Mr Joyce went on to say, “Businesses tell me they greatly appreciate this support”. Of course they do. No business thinking of offering internships will refuse to accept payments for doing something it was going to do anyway.

The Minister’s argument becomes even more absurd when he claims the scheme will promote cutting edge R&D projects – and then opens it to postgraduates studying for marketing degrees. What kind of R&D can be expected from marketing students? More effective advertising campaigns? Less annoying market research calls?

Government playing matchmaker between postgrad students and businesses is a typical case of a scheme that sounds plausible at first but is just a publicity stunt. The possibility of scoring one of these gold-plated internships is only little better than winning the lottery.

Awarding internships to 70 of the more than 460,000 students enrolled in NZ tertiary education may benefit the selected few but will do little to improve education overall.

It is laudable to have a government committed to improving education. Let’s not tarnish the goal with a $2.1 million gimmick.

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