As citizens of a liberal democracy, we were promised a number of things. We were promised the protection of human rights for all people, and the right to hold free and fair elections. We were promised freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to follow whatever religion we choose. We were also promised the opportunity for prosperity and success. In a liberal democracy, social mobility can be achieved through hard work and dedication. This idea stems from the American dream: It doesn’t matter who your parents are, opportunities are given to those who work hard enough to earn them.

All around the world, young students are leaving for their first year of university keeping this promise in mind. Many of them had to ask for government loans, some will be working part time in order to be able to afford the increasingly expensive tuition fees. In Spain, tuition fees vary depending on whether the university is private or public and the career you’ve chosen to study. As in most countries in Europe, tuition fees have risen in the past few years. Overall, Spanish universities are the sixth most expensive in Europe.

University is expensive, but we are told it will be worth it. If you work hard in school, if you work hard in university (or at least the last year of university) prosperity will be within grasp, regardless of your initial social and economic conditions. However, more and more students are beginning to realize that there is yet another obstacle before the promised opportunity of prosperity and success. The obstacle is unpaid internships.

Internships are becoming a mandatory requisite for most skilled jobs around the world. Some internships are paid, but according to Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, employing unpaid interns is a progressively common practice. This is becoming increasingly common in Spain: Youth unemployment and bad economic prospects have encouraged many young Spaniards to take unpaid internships in the hope it will lead to a job in the future. According to Esteban Sánchez Moreno, a researcher of youth and unemployment at Madrid’s Complutense University, little data exists on internships in Spain but the reality is that more and more interns are being used as a covert way for Spanish companies to get work done for free.

Unpaid internships are inconvenient, but for many young people in Spain they can also be outright impossible. For many students finishing university the prospect of spending another year/two years without earning money is out of the question, especially when the internship takes place outside of Spain. The European Parliament and the United Nations offer many unpaid internships in different places around the world, but for most students these internships are a luxury they just can’t afford. Unfortunately, these internships are also the most prestigious and more likely to impress potential employers.

Another constraint is the importance of connections in the labour market. Unlike many European countries, where nepotism is condemned or at least not publicly acknowledged, Spain has a long tradition of barefaced nepotism in politics, business, and the job market. Public organs such as the Court of Auditors (Tribunal de Cuentas) have 14 per cent of their employees with family ties to the senior employees, and even the Supreme Court has designated judges’ relatives as members of the Tribunal. When it comes to internships, connections are more likely to influence the employer’s decision than the merit of the applicant. According to a young Spanish student working as an unpaid intern in the Spanish embassy of the United Nations, most of the interns she works with are the sons and daughters of old family friends of senior members of the embassy. ‘Most of them haven’t been through any selection process’ she says. ‘They get to choose the appointments they want and they’re given the best jobs’.

In an interview with Antonio Cabrales, an Economics Professor at the University College of London, he advances some possible solutions to the problems unpaid internships cause: ‘Universities and companies need to work closer together’ he explains. ‘There needs to be greater regulation to ensure internships are allocated by merit through the universities, and universities need to make sure they provide all students with the opportunity to acquire the work experience they are going to need when they graduate’. ‘There are already some universities which provide their students with internship opportunities. This needs to happen on a larger scale’.

Social advancement was never as easy or widespread as liberal democracies have often claimed. Universities are expensive, and many students remain heavily in debt years after obtaining their university degree. However unpaid internships are proving to be another obstacle for those who didn’t start from a position of privilege, and this problem is being exacerbated by the shameless nepotism being used to decide who gets an internship and who doesn’t. The elites privilege the elites, and those who don’t have the means and the connections get left behind. If social mobility stalls, class division will grow. Spain needs to make sure opportunities are based on merit and not on nepotism or financial circumstances. If not, social advancement may soon prove to be even more difficult than it already is.

Julia Tena de la Nuez








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