Alleged exploitation of unpaid interns by German Department

Unpaid interns recruited by the Department of Germanic Studies can work up to “12 hours every day” organising student activities and teaching classes, Trinity News has learned.

Interns teach a significant number of the compulsory language classes taken weekly by Junior and Senior Freshman students and are sometimes required to correct students’ homework.

They also take weekly tutorial groups for a module in cultural studies and have covered for absent lecturers on a number of occasions in the past.

In addition to language classes, interns are regularly tasked with organising extracurricular activities, such as film screenings, and “Stammtisch” nights, the informal pub gatherings which are a tradition of the Department. During the Christmas period, interns often bake with students.

One of the most significant responsibilities entrusted to unpaid interns took place in 2011, when they ran the theatre group, which is a key  component of first year and involves weekly practice sessions, without any assistance from the Department.

The lecturer whose role it was to lead the class, according to an intern who worked in Trinity College for one term that year, was on sick leave for over a month, which resulted in interns taking over as directors.

The internship programme in question has been in operation for ten years and is advertised online by the Department.

For the entire time during which they work, interns receive no financial assistance from the Department with either accommodation or transport costs. Instead, they are expected to apply for funding or an Erasmus grant from their home university or the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).  One former intern who received financial assistance through the Erasmus exchange programme told Trinity News that it “barely covered [his] rent”.

In a statement to Trinity News, Professor Moray McGowan, head of the Department of Germanic Studies, said, “Interns teach conversation classes in spoken German which are a supplement to the structured instruction in German language provided by more senior and qualified staff. They are supervised in this by the staff who teach the language classes.”

However, an intern who worked in the Department last year, while stressing that the group had supervisors who “always found the time to discuss our teaching experience and also sat in on some of our classes”, told Trinity News that they “relied on us to prepare and perform the teaching independently”.

Professor McGowan’s claim is also at odds with comments provided by current students at the Department of Germanic Studies.

Speaking to this reporter, a final-year European Studies student recounted his experience of German language classes in first and second year in less than complimentary terms. “Our classes were taken every week by people who were essentially teaching their peers,” he said. “I didn’t learn a lot from them. They were chaotic and not very challenging. I don’t think they really knew what they were supposed to be doing.” When asked to describe the profile of language teachers he encountered teaching these language classes, he claimed that, “Most of them would’ve been about 22 or 23.”

Another final year student, who took oral German as part of his TSM degree with the Department in Junior and Senior Freshman years, told Trinity News, “From what I remember of them, they were very, very informal. To be honest, I stopped going during second year, as I didn’t really feel they were worth the time…The impression I got was that [the tutors] were young, native speakers, possibly doing a postgrad in Trinity, and doing this on the side to earn some money. They just ran through some very basic exercises with us in class that were more akin to material you’d cover when learning a language in secondary school.”

The interns taken on every year, McGowan said in his statement, are either students of German or of English studying for a Master’s degree, or teachers of German as a foreign language. They are not interviewed by the Department, and are instead selected on the merits of a CV to work for periods of one term up to an entire academic year in college.

According to McGowan, the Department’s interns are required to attend a two hour seminar on teaching and an hour-long team meeting, alongside three to five hours of teaching, with one to two hours of preparation per contact hour. This would suggest that interns work a maximum of eighteen hours per week.

However, one intern, who spent a term with the Department two years ago, told Trinity News, “It was not unusual to be more than 12 hours at work every day.”

An intern from last year supported this claim, writing in a communication to this reporter that, “On average, I worked about eight to 10 hours a day between Monday and Friday.”

She added, “We were not able to do much besides our internship. We had little time for all those the things you think about when going abroad – like party, travelling, etc. – due to our long working hours and exhaustion.”

Though some interns felt they gained a valuable experience working at Trinity College, others were less impressed with the treatment of interns.

An intern who worked in the Department two years ago told Trinity News, “It was clear that we were not really considered part of the department. We were not invited to any departmental events. I remember one incident, when one of the PhD students was celebrating her degree, or a publication or something, and everybody was drinking wine right outside our office.We didn’t dare go outside and join the staff, because nobody told us about it or asked if we wanted to join… I was surprised at this behaviour because we took over such a large amount of the classes and some interns had been there for nearly a full academic year, which in my opinion would have been long enough for other members of staff to at least know their names.”

The HR Department did not respond to a request for a statement on the issue of unpaid internships at Trinity College. However, both the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) and the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), the union which represents the college’s lecturers, have condemned the unfair use of interns in Irish universities.

Speaking to Trinity News, Louise O’Reilly, SIPTU Education Sector organiser, said, “We’re not against internships. They’re often a valuable learning experience, but when you’re doing work that would ordinarily be paid, and replacing paid work, that’s unacceptable.”

While reluctant to speak about the specific working conditions of interns at the Department of Germanic Studies, IFUT president, Mike Jennings, stated, “Internships have to be a genuine training opportunity. We would look unfavourably on any situation in which interns are asked to do on an unpaid basis what other people are usually paid to do.” Jennings added that it was the first instance he had heard of unpaid interns being used at a third-level language department.

Catherine Healy

Editor of Trinity News. Interested in politics, history and all forms of media.