Why is Imperial College permitting Westminster public school to sell an internship?

May 14th, 2013 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, just a blog | 11 Comments »

This is very odd indeed. Westminster, one of the most expensive public schools in the UK, is holding a fund-raising auction. In this auction, you can buy an internship at Imperial College’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering, on the promise that this will look great on your CV.


“On offer is a one week internship at the Institute for an A-level student. This placement promises a fascinating insight into the field of biomedical engineering and would be a wonderful addition to the CV of any budding scientist.”

Internships like these are bad at the best of times. As I’ve written before, on the topic of full time 6 month internships, these actively exacerbate social inequality in the professions, by giving a leg up to those who can afford to pay.



This isn’t just distasteful. In the media, and in politics, it is now recognised that unpaid internships are harmful to the culture of these professions: unpaid entry posts mean that the children of wealthy parents get in, get ahead, and do better, because their families can afford to give them money to pay rent and live in London while they earn no salary.

Unequal entrance to professions for the children of wealthy parents exaggerates an already unequal society. I think you could also argue – though I am happy to agree this is a more tenuous point – that since lower levels of wealth and income are associated with specificethnic groups, this employment policy from universities is frankly racist.

…These kinds of posts are common, so I certainly don’t blame individuals. But I do think we need a serious national debate on whether we think they are okay.

The opportunities of the next generation, and the shape of our professions, are being determined by the wealth of peoples’ parents.

It’s especially sad to see this being driven so openly in academia.

This Imperial College internship takes the problem to a whole new level, by actively charging. I don’t doubt that Westminster public school (£7,236 a term) wants to do lovely constructive things with the money. Selling access to professions is not the way to do it.


I’m pleased to see that Imperial College Students Union are already on the case here:


Imperial College Union was informed this morning of the auctioning of an internship in the Institute of Biomedical Engineering.

The Sabbaticals concerned condemn this, in the strongest terms, and in the absence of a Union Council resolution are working to have the auction removed.

It is our fundamental belief that access to education should be based on merit, not ability to pay; and that efforts to widen access to an Imperial education to students from disadvantaged backgrounds are a central part of the College’s academic mission. As the auction page says, this opportunity will give “a fascinating insight into the field of biomedical engineering and would be a wonderful addition to the CV of any budding student”. For a publicly-funded body to restrict this transformational opportunity only to the wealthy is a betrayal of our academic principles and the work to widen access to which so many staff and students have given their time.

And here is a barnstorming piece from the Imperial College newspaper:


That this should ever have happened is a pretty disappointing reminder of the barriers to equal access.

Another update:

Here’s another internship to make you feel queasy, via @davidecarroll @Holliboll @izzybraithwaite:


“Take advantage of this exclusive opportunity for a 6-week internship in NYC working for Bruce Knotts, Chair of the UN-NGO Committee on Human Rights. You will gain inside knowledge of just how the UN really operates and have tremendous opportunities to make invaluable connections. This truly is the ultimate internship opportunity for any college or graduate student looking to get their foot in the door!”

Currently at just $26,000.

Here’s Robert Peston on internships:


And it looks like the lawyers were criticising Westminster school and barristers over this internship auction as long ago as last week:

Westminster School auctions a mini-pupillage – current bid £750

Meanwhile the auction page for the Imperial College science internship has disappeared, screengrab copy below:

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 14.49.57




A last update:

Imperial College have issued a statement:


If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

11 Responses

  1. martinlong1978 said,

    May 14, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Not your words but:

    “I think you could also argue – though I am happy to agree this is a more tenuous point – that since lower levels of wealth and income are associated with specific ethnic groups, this employment policy from universities is frankly racist.”

    By that logic you could argue that first-class tickets, Ferrari cars, or fillet steak are also racist. Making something only available to people with lower incomes is not racist. Racist is making pre-judgements based specifically on somebody’s race.

  2. razumny said,

    May 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    @martinlong: There is a huge difference in terms of accessibility between education, which I think most would agree is something to which everyone should have access, at the highest quality possible, and travel or luxury items.

    The first is paramount to get a job, particularly in an economy like the one we currently see, the second is not. If you do need to travel, or own a car, for that matter, there are cheaper alternatives than First class and Ferraris.

    At any rate, I fail to see the relevance of your comment to this post. Would you care to expand on it?

  3. bt42 said,

    May 14, 2013 at 4:42 pm


    Well actually, you’re right. Access to those luxuries IS restricted in a racist way.

    Structural racism exists – that is, BME people face systemic disadvantages and discrimination. In a capitalist, socially unjust society, one consequence of this is that BME people, on average, have less economic power and less access to expensive things including luxuries, and advantages like these internships (helping to perpetuate inequality). Even though obviously some things hurt more than others, and access to luxury foods is lower down the list of grievances than, say, the inequalities of how people are treated in education, employment and the justice system.

    Racism ISN’T just personal bigotries, it’s a whole social structure that interacts and intersects with the other injustices of capitalism, sexism etc etc.

  4. justmee said,

    May 14, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    I just did an unpaid internship because it was an opportunity that I cannot miss and luckily I can afford it. Staff I worked with feels the same that interns should be paid and they appreciate very much that we do good work even for free. But I am absolutely disgusted by the fact that free labour (who’re often very well qualified) is taken for granted at organization level, by reputable companies and international organizations. Worst still, you may not be entitled to holidays at all because you’re not paid. Something is very wrong here, you’re not allowed to take days-off when you’re volunteering.

    On top, I have also known people who can’t go for an internship because it is unpaid. And I am lucky also because the location of the internship has lower standard of living than where I live, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do it. Students don’t need a lot to live, but they need to be paid! We’re forced into this when every job description says they want people with work experience. Universities need to do something about this.

  5. gimpyblog said,

    May 14, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    Never mind selling them, actual research internships pay less than minimum wage. We got funding for one from a certain research council, hourly rate, assuming standard 37 hour week (they’ll be putting in 50 hours+) works out as just over £5/hour.

  6. misterjohn said,

    May 14, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    This isn’t really an internship; it’s a one week work experience at best. But having to pay for work experience is appalling, and even though the Westminster parents can probably afford it, it’s not a good precedent. The next stage will be auctioning undergraduate courses.

  7. Xobbo said,

    May 14, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    I think the relevance of martinlong’s was clear from the portion of text he quoted, and I feel the same way as he does. It’s completely fatuous to bring racism into the discussion. This is not a race issue.
    The fact that race correlates with poverty is irrelevant unless there is an intention to exploit that correlation, and I don’t see any indication of that here. In any case, lots of things correlate with other things in the same way (poverty with age, location, gender, favourite football team…), so why highlight race?

  8. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 14, 2013 at 11:24 pm

    No way. The comment about race was related to the worryingly frequent clinical psychology work experience posts. That’s a profession that professes to be passionate about access and equality, there is no way on earth that selecting entrants by parental wealth doesn’t tend to exclude people from ethnic minorities in the UK.

  9. Xobbo said,

    May 15, 2013 at 2:19 am

    I don’t think any of us are arguing that selecting by parental wealth doesn’t exclude ethnic minorities disproportionately – of course it does. What we are saying is that (in this case, at least) this is not due to racism.
    As martinlong pointed out, calling something racist simply because the disadvantaged group correlates with race is mistaken, because by that logic you could say that fruit trees are racist because the average Chinese person can’t reach as much fruit as a European.

    It seems to me that the poor are disadvantaged equally by the issue of internships, regardless of race. The fact that ethnic minorities are disproportionately poor is an important but separate issue, and mixing the two confuses the matter.

  10. notsit said,

    May 15, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    The Bar Standards Board has got in touch with Westminster to ask them what the heck they are on about. According to a Times article I half-read because it was behind the pay-wall said the purpose of the auction was to raise funds for an academy for underprivileged teenagers to help them get to Oxbridge, so the intent was noble even if the method was crude.

    The sad thing is that the people whose parents can afford to pay hundreds of pounds for an internship, probably don’t need the leg up because their education and social background places them far ahead of their peers.

    Oh, and it is racism. It is indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination can occur when an organisation has a practice or policy that applies to everyone but particularly disadvantages people who share a protected characteristic. Race is a protected characteristic. Poverty is not, sadly, because the auction is absolutely discriminatory against poor people.

    You can’t compare auctioning an internship to an expensive commodity like a Ferrari – an internship is not a luxury good which can be sold and bought for a high price, an internship is work experience which allows the intern to get valuable insight into a career which would enable them to do well in future job interviews. It should be earned through an open and fair application process, not bought by your rich parents.

  11. HungryHobo said,

    May 17, 2013 at 11:44 am

    Tangentially related but this reminds me of a quote from Eliezer Yudkowsky:

    “Have I ever remarked on how completely ridiculous it is to ask high school students to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives and give them nearly no support in doing so? Support like, say, spending a day apiece watching twenty different jobs and then another week at their top three choices, with salary charts and projections and probabilities of graduating that subject given their test scores? The more so considering this is a central allocation question for the entire economy?”

    There seems to be more and more of a shift towards requiring a donation of unpaid labor to actually get into any decent professions in this country.