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Oxford low income scholarship reduces wage for internships during the pandemic

Image: the Radcliffe Camera partially obscured by a wall, in black and white.

Oxford University’s Crankstart Scholarship, awarded to students from families earning an income lower than £27,500 per annum, has reduced the hourly wage that scholars can receive for internships undertaken through the Scholarship. In May 2020 the Scholarship offered students £9.30 an hour when undertaking internships from companies that could not afford to pay that rate themselves. As the global COVID-19 pandemic continued to force internships to be carried out remotely, the University’s Careers Service decided to reduce the hourly wage students to £8.72, in line with the National Minimum Wage for over 25s.

In addition to a yearly bursary of £3,700, Crankstart scholars are given an allowance of £2,500 a year to fund internships. This allowance is used to cover travel, accommodation, and general living costs and an hourly wage if the company they are interning with is unable to pay what Crankstart determines to be the minimum hourly wage. Students are required to fill out an application form that asks how they believe the internship “will make a difference to [their] personal development” and the exact details on what their living costs will be during the duration of the internship.  

Oxford University is a member of the Living Wage Foundation, which encourages businesses to pay their employees £9.50 an hour (£10.85 an hour in London), rather than the government’s National Minimum Wage of £8.72. The foundation calls this the “Real Living Wage… based on what people need to live” and recommends that all workers aged 18 and older should be paid this Real Living Wage instead of the government minimum of £6.45 for 18 to 20-year-olds.

When asked why the Crankstart scholarship had decided to break with the Real Living Wage and instead offer its scholars the National Minimum Wage Dr Fiona Whitehouse, Head of Oxford University’s Careers Service Internship Office, said “It was really hard to navigate the funding during the pandemic in terms of where the internships were being delivered from and seeing that there was no requirement for travel it made sense to bring all of them in line with a national figure.“ She added that they “make additional financial awards depending on the scholar’s needs.”

Some Crankstart scholars are disappointed with the decision to reduce the rate at which they can access their allowance during a global pandemic. One Crankstart scholar, who wished to remain anonymous, stated that they “think this decision makes a very unfortunate and confusing statement to students from lower-income backgrounds about how we and our work should be valued.” The scholar also claims that “there hasn’t been any public discussion of the associated costs of working at home.”

Some scholars may face increased living costs by spending more time at home, i.e. higher energy bills incurred by running the heating for longer than usual. This is especially a worry for mature scholars who are often financially independent from their parents and do not return to their family homes after the term ends. 16% of undergraduates at Harris Manchester College, Oxford’s mature student college, are Crankstart scholars.

Dr Whitehouse claims that “The intention is to return the amount to Real Living Wage this term as students are already planning in-person internships this summer” and that “The amounts paid in the future will be in line with the Real Living Wage, so if that goes up so will the amount paid.” Crankstart scholars have the opportunity of interviewing for ‘Micro-internships’ over the Easter holidays, which are one to two week placements that run between Oxford’s Hilary and Trinity Terms. If funding returns to the rate of £9.50 an hour by the end of this Hilary term, students can expect to earn £332.5 working a 35-hour week.

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