India has the world’s second-largest number of undergraduate and graduate students pursuing study in STEM fields. This is a huge strength considering the ever-increasing importance of these fields in the modern economy. However, it is also widely acknowledged that the vast majority of fresh graduates are ill-trained for professional life resulting in low employability due to a multitude of factors that hamper the development of their job-relevant skills. It has been an impediment preventing India from capitalising on the benefits of the present demographic dividend.
An internship is generally defined as a short-term paid or unpaid work contract primarily designed for students that exposes them to an organisation’s culture and dynamics. Internships bring benefits to all stakeholders involved – students, host organisations, students’ parent institutes, and the society at large. For students, they provide practical experience of working in an organisational setting, opportunity to learn and practice communication and teamwork skills, time management, multi-tasking and networking skills. Further, they provide opportunities to explore different career options and evaluate an organisation before committing to a full-time position. Experience gained during an internship is a valuable addition to the resume and enhances both employability, and candidacy for higher education and research positions. Moreover, working in a professional setting with colleagues from different academic and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds contributes to a student’s personal growth.
For host organisations, internships act as a potential tool to tap motivated pre-professionals for seasonal positions and short-term projects. This, in turn, allows more freedom and flexibility to full-time employees to focus on long-term, creative and challenging projects. Interns also contribute by bringing fresh ideas, perspectives and energy to their host organisations. Especially in the context of the rigid and complicated labour laws in India, the availability of a flexible and cost-effective workforce is a huge asset. Further, an internship is a time-tested and cost-effective way to recruit and evaluate future employees.
For the student’s parent institute, internships help bolster the institute’s brand image and credibility. They help strengthen institutional cooperation and collaboration with host organisations and provide essential feedback on curriculum and teaching methodology from students and host organisations. Interns often act as channels for communication of the technical, managerial and R&D best practices between host and parent institutes. For the society and economy, internships help prepare employment-ready graduates, thus potentially reducing the unemployment levels that currently plagues the country. Further, the technical, managerial and R&D training of manpower through internships contributes to the human capital of the country. Internships often require temporary movement of undergraduates to a different city and such waves of migration are good for the economy and national integration.
In the last decade, the quantity and the quality of internships offered by various organisations have grown tremendously as has the desire of students to pursue them. In the STEM fields, almost all top higher education and research institutes (HEIs) including IISc, IITs, IISERs, NITs, and CSIR labs now have well-structured internship programmes. Further, an ever-growing number of internship opportunities are opening up in domestic and foreign industries. Despite these encouraging trends and the huge benefits that internships offer, there exist many problems with different aspects of how internships are structured, incentivised, compensated and executed.
- There is an absence of universal guidelines that would promote, and facilitate internships. The presence of numerous regulatory authorities like AICTE, UGC, state higher education bodies and autonomous institutes have further compounded the problem with a diverse set of policies and rules.
- There is no centralised location or office, where data regarding the quantity, quality and trends about internships are collected, compiled, analysed and distributed. Such data could be used for meta-analysis to better understand the changing nature of the internship landscape in India and its socio-economic implications.
- There exists no formal universal mechanism of credits and monetary benefits or certification to incentivise students to pursue internships.
- There is a dire need of more transparency in the way internships are advertised and executed by the host organisations to prevent frauds and harassment. Also, unpaid internships need to be systematically looked into as the labour is not monetarily compensated there
- A standardised certification process is needed that would highlight the skills learned and experience gained by the candidate during the internship period to reap the full benefits of the internship culture. Such standard certificates could later be utilised to get the right match for a job on various public and private career portals.
- The number of internships offered in interdisciplinary fields and the emerging technology areas needs to increase because a large number of future jobs are likely to emerge in these fields.
- Create a separate authority jointly under relevant government agencies especially the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labour and Employment for preparing national guidelines and monitor their implementation. However, it is crucial that such an authority has a facilitative role and does not hamper the growth of various internship models with excessive regulations. This authority can also be tasked with collection, compilation, analysis and distribution of internship related data at the national level.
- Students can be incentivised by providing extra credit points for pursuing internships. The career and placement cells in HEIs should be extended to also encompass various internship related services including constructing a database of various internship programmes, feedback of earlier interns, FAQs, and counselling.
- Some steps to bring more transparency in the way internships are advertised and executed are as follows:
- The host organisation’s profile, vision and values should be clearly advertised along with the number of interns needed, and the nature of compensation.
- Expectations from interns including the working hours and duties have to be clearly communicated.
- The process of selection of interns should be predefined, objective and non-discriminatory.
- New interns should be provided with an orientation at the beginning involving a tour of the host organisation, introduction to key administrative staff, and information on code of conduct and safety regulation.
- There should be an empowered forum for interns to register their grievances in case of exploitation or harassment.
- A report on the intern’s performance shall be sent to the parent institution after the end of the internship period.
- Science and Engineering academies should work on a mechanism to partner with various research institutes to extend their fellowships to also include faculty members and scientists that are not fellows of these academies.
- Joint internship programmes with national academies and industrial professional bodies could be designed and launched. Such programmes would incorporate elements of both industrial and academic research providing students exposure to both worlds.
- More interns exchange programmes with the academies and HEIs of other countries should be launched as they would not only greatly add to an interns’ profile, but also advance India’s scientific and cultural cooperation.
- Incentives in the form of tax rebates and financial assistance could be provided for internships in selected sectors with high employment potential. Also, the CSR provisions could be tweaked to nudge industries into taking more interns.
- An evidence-driven internship policy with detailed execution guidelines should be prepared. While preparing such a policy, a comparative study of internship cultures in different countries should be performed with a focus on adopting the global best practices in the Indian context. Such a policy should align with other government schemes such as National Education Policy, Atal Innovation Mission, Skill India, Startup India and National Skill Qualification Framework for better synergy and utilisation of resources.
The ‘future of work’ with the upcoming industrial revolution 4.0 is going to bring about numerous challenges and opportunities with drastic changes in every aspect of how ‘work’ is done. Our HEIs with their current rigidity in the curriculum and functioning are immensely underprepared to inculcate the necessary skills in students for these challenges and opportunities. Here, well-designed, appropriately incentivised and meticulously executed internships could partially compensate for the skill gap. However, the rapidly evolving internship landscape in India warrants more attention from the government. Overall, the whole ‘internship phenomenon’ is inextricably braided with many facets of economic growth, and therefore it is vital to have a comprehensive internship policy that addresses the many associated challenges and opportunities.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Science Policy Forum.