By Tom Mitchell
A Durham student undertaking a Year Abroad work placement has spoken to Palatinate to warn of maltreatment by employers and “extremely useless” support from the University.
Paid employment is one of three suggested options for students spending a year of their degree overseas, alongside British Council Assistantships and Erasmus study placements.
Third-year Collingwood student Derron Ankers, who secured a placement in Barcelona with Garment Printing, criticises both his employer and the University for his bad experiences abroad.
Ankers, who studies in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures (MLAC), claims he was obliged to take on too large a workload and was not paid a fair wage for his work.
The student’s official remit was to “support with graphic design work… my job was supporting with content writing, translation and e-commerce. I also would work with social media every now and then.”
Though Ankers admits that during the first month “the atmosphere in the office was great,” he notes his troubles began after the resignation of a co-worker.
After the colleague in question rejected the offer of a managerial job without a pay rise, Ankers claims the atmosphere changed within the workplace, with the General Manager stating: “We should be writing eight articles of a thousand words a week, with over twenty social media posts a week, amongst improving all landing pages”.
According to Ankers, it was his manager’s failure to “realise how much work we all actually did” that led to the resignation of his co-worker.
As a consequence of the resignation, Ankers was obliged to take on an extra workload, “for a measly €200 per month for a 40 hour per week job”. The staffing change also required Ankers to take a series of digital marketing training courses in addition to his office hours.
Ankers told Palatinate: “I was getting shafted, working 50-plus hours a week and in the end, he didn’t pay me. [My employer] constantly undermined me, embarrassed me in front of colleagues for my political beliefs, threatened me when he was [drunk].”
Ankers believes he is not the only one to have struggled with employment difficulties on his Year Abroad, saying: “I am just one of many stories.”
He condemns, in particular, the University’s response to his difficulties, branding its Year Abroad support “extremely useless,” before adding: “They wouldn’t even know if you were in England all year”.
The University’s Year Abroad Handbook does not set out a commitment to support students with employment arrangements. The document states: “We must emphasise that if you choose [the paid employment] option, then the onus is on you to find suitable employment, and you should not underestimate the amount of time and effort you will have to put into this task.”
While the University supplies a list of suitable companies, it makes clear it “cannot fully guarantee their reliability”.
This can leave students with a sense of being stranded as they look for paid employment. Maddy Wattles, a second-year student at Van Mildert, agrees with Ankers’ assessment of University support.
Wattles said: “Aside from a handful of talks and some sporadic emails, the modern languages department has offered no real support for second years organising work placements for their year abroad.
“I can speak for a lot of us when I say that we feel completely in the dark, and have no idea where to start.”
Professor David Cowling, ProVice-Chancellor (Arts and Humanities), said in a statement: “Many students from the School of Modern Languages and Cultures (MLAC) complete a work placement as part of the Year Abroad.
“They are responsible for organising their own placements, ensuring they research and select an employer who best suits their career development aspirations. School academic and administrative staff provide support for students before and during their Year Abroad.
“The School actively seeks feedback from all Year Abroad students on their experience to see if any improvements can be made.”
Photograph: WISEBUYS21 via Flickr (Creative Commons)