First and second year RMIT journalism students will no longer receive insurance from the University while undertaking internships. This means they will not be able to legally volunteer at media organisations until third year. In an email to students on 18 February Alexandra Wake, a radio lecturer who organises internships for journalism students, wrote that she had received a number of emails from students regarding work placement. “While we encourage students to do work placement and internships, we require that students are appropriately prepared for that work,” she said. “We require you to have completed more than the introductory subjects before we can offer RMIT insurance. We will help you organise a work placement in third year, as part of your internship course.”
Many students feel they have received mixed messages. Peppe Cavalieri, a second year journalism student, says he missed out on a two-day-a-week internship with The Warrnambool Standard because of this policy change. “They insured me to work at Channel 10 early last year because I had been there before. When I contacted the School of Media and Communication again about insurance I was told they don’t think first year students can give a good impression of the University or themselves. It is a massive contradiction to everything we’ve been told and they weren’t very apologetic about it.” Peppe says students were told to get work experience from the very first lecture. He feels the University is punishing students who want to take initiative by not offering them personal liability insurance.
For Alex Wake, the matter is simple. RMIT’s policy reflects the law. “In journalism we are dealing with stories. But if we were talking about sending untrained medical students into the workforce, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” she said. Mandy Oakham, senior lecturer in the School of Media and Communication, agrees. She says the University prefers to wait for students to develop industry skills in either a university or workplace environment before sending them out into the real world. “We are very concerned about RMIT maintaining its high level of representation for the sake of all students,” she said. “We would hope that by third year students are at a high level and will have a positive experience along with the industry provider. After all, these workplaces are doing us a great favour. We do not mean in any way to hold back students. Rather, we want to give them the best experience possible.”
Yolanda Redrup is an RMIT journalism graduate and in 2012 was the co-editor of Catalyst. She is currently a business journalist for Smart Company and believes interning was the most important aspect of her degree. “In the industry interning is crucial,” she says. “If you don’t intern then you don’t get a job. It’s as simple as that.” Throughout her course Yolanda completed six internships across various media organisations. “If you don’t do around that many then you won’t have the experience necessary to go out and get a job. I think that having only one year is not enough to get all the experience you need. When we were in first year we were encouraged to go out and get industry experience. Not all of the placements you should be doing are organised through the University.”
Elizabeth Redman, a graduate from Melbourne University and currently a journalist for Insurance News, offers the same advice. “I recommend you get as much experience as you can now,” she says. “Internships give you real-life skills and help you make real-life contacts.” Despite being the 2011 co-editor of Farrago and interning at various places like Crikey and The Conversation, it took over six months for Elizabeth to find an entry-level job in journalism. Allison Worrall – an executive producer of SYN’s current affairs program Panorama – says it is important to realise there are other things besides interning that can assist journalism students in finding a job. “Students need a variety of skills and experience,” she says, citing publishing your work in student magazines as one example. “However, internships are incredibly beneficial and shouldn’t be off limits for two-thirds of our degree.”
Last year Melbourne University student Sasha Burden was the subject of much ridicule and debate after she published a scathing opinion piece in Farrago, detailing her two-week internship at The Herald Sun. “Throughout the week, I was consistently subjected to patronising attitudes … Men were also continuously and unnecessarily sexist,” she wrote. “If Australia’s big mastheads all function like this then I say bring on their decline. Rip down the banners that have led to media exclusivity and elitism. Huzzah to the future of online, diverse reporting.” The Herald Sun’s Editor-in-Chief wrote to the University of Melbourne to complain. The fiasco made media headlines and was debated extensively online. With this in mind it is no surprise that universities are being cautious when it comes to sending their interns out into the workforce following the incident. However Alex Wake says the University had already been reviewing their policies for some time.
January of this year also saw a report compiled for the Fair Work Ombudsman by Andrew Stewart and Rosemary Owens of the Adelaide Law School. The report (entitled ‘Experience or Exploitation?’) found there was “some uncertainty” about the legality of unpaid work outside of educational courses due to the “unclear” wording of the Fair Work Act 2009. In this regard Alex Wake says the reason for RMIT’s policy on workplace insurance is, in part, to prevent employers from “taking advantage of students”. However the report also acknowledged that in the print and broadcast media “such arrangements [unpaid internships] are a common prelude to securing paid work”.
All students completing an internship are required to have personal liability insurance for the duration of their placement. This means that first and second year RMIT journalism students will not be able to intern at large organisations or workplaces that, understandably, enforce these guidelines. Catalyst understands that a similar policy is in place for Media and Communications students at Melbourne University – and in fact all universities in the country. However this doesn’t stop students from volunteering at smaller publications that may be more lenient when it comes to insurance policies. Sam Cooney, editor of The Lifted Brow, says it is important that students intern at smaller organisations because that is where you will be trusted with real responsibilities. “Interns at the Brow can find themselves doing all kinds of work,” he says. “Interns aren’t around just to be robots. They shouldn’t feel like they helped other people make a magazine, but instead that they made the magazine themselves.”
Matilda Marozzi is a second-year journalism student at RMIT. During the summer break she completed an internship in Africa and in 2012 she interned for the ABC. “I think the policy is unfair,” she says. “Especially because this is a university that prides itself on being work orientated. If you approach an organisation and they are willing to take you on they know you are not experienced. They are not going to put you in a position where you are going to embarrass the company or the University.” There is still hope for students like Matilda who wish to keep interning. Alex Wake says there is nothing stopping first or second years from purchasing their own insurance. “However you will find that larger companies generally do not provide these sorts of services to students,” she says.
Journalism is a highly competitive field. According to The Australian, in 2011 52 entry-level jobs were offered by the major newspapers and wire services. This is in comparison with nearly 5000 journalism enrolments nationwide in the same year. In this kind of environment RMIT students have no choice but to volunteer at media organisations. The alternative – students graduating without enough real-world experience – would reflect more poorly on the University’s image than one or two careless interns.