Work experience is an accepted part of business life and can be a valuable way into a competitive industry. But could the industry be taking advantage of this regular supply of enthusiastic young journalists?

Furthermore, some professional journalists suspect that students or graduates that work for free could be taking the place of professional journalists.

Mike Ward heads the department of journalism at the University of Central Lancashire. He helped to place around 170 students in work experience placements last year and feels that if properly managed, placements are a valuable part of the learning process.

"I can’t understand these colleges that leave students to arrange their own work experience. They just won't have the knowledge or the contacts to do that properly," he told dotJournalism.

"If the work experience is pitched at the proper level then the students are there to learn and experience a professional work environment. In that situation, they should not be taking work from professionals," he said.

"But if they do placements once they have graduated, they are then fully trained and would present more competition to other professionals."

The university team discourages students from taking up unpaid placements once they have graduated. If a candidate is particularly keen, they advise that the placement is carefully structured to protect both the graduate and the publisher.

"We strongly advise that if they work for free it should be for a very limited time - just a couple of days - so that they can prove their skills," Mr Ward explained.

"They also need a clear outcome decided with the editor beforehand, such as an agreement that they will be taken on as a paid freelancer if the placement is successful."

According to the National Union of Journalists, one unpaid graduate placement at The Independent newspaper continued for 11 months. The union is more established at the newspaper now and says this should not happen there again, but it also says it is not aware of any UK publications that will only offer paid placements - indicating that journalists could be working for free at virtually any UK publisher.

The NUJ has already tackled the area of exploitative work experience. Among guidelines adopted at the union's annual delegate meeting in 1989, it said that work produced during a placement should not be used for publication or broadcast and that, if it is used, it should be paid for at the normal rate.

It also advises that placements should be offered only as part of a recognised college course, and that they should only be arranged at organisations that are 'up to strength editorially'.

Martin Hamer, course leader of Sheffield University's MA in Web Journalism, feels that working for free on a work experience placement is an investment on the part of the student.

"If they impress during the placement, they could be asked back to do paid shifts which could lead to full-time work," he said.

Previous students have found paid full-time work at Guardian Unlimited and BBC Online as a result of work experience placements. He admits that there have been instances where staff suspected that students were being exploited - particularly when an organisation says it won't offer a placement unless it is for six months.

But he feels that smaller media companies are unlikely to use free content produced by students instead of employing a professional.

"In many cases there probably wouldn't be anyone extra to do the work anyway," he said.

"And you wouldn't think that bigger firms would gamble on using students instead of far more experienced journalists as they have more to lose if things go wrong."

Bernard Thompson is a freelance journalist and secretary of the Glasgow branch of the National Union of Journalists. While he agrees that work experience can be valuable to new journalists, Mr Thompson feels that many industries - including the media - rely on work experience for a stream of free labour.

"If a commercial website asks people to write for them unpaid, they should really ask what they are going to gain from the venture," he said.

"It would be just as beneficial - and show far greater initiative - to set up a website on their own and learn as much as possible that way."

Mr Ward concedes that using journalists that write for free provides a cheap solution for an inevitably cost-conscious industry. But he is convinced that the learning experience is just one element of a much bigger process that ultimately benefits both the industry and the student.

"We work with a huge range of media organisations from the BBC to local newspapers - and both sides understand the importance of building that partnership.

"Editors visit us for talks, journalists come in to lead workshops and students go out to do placements.

"Work experience is just one small but important part of creating the journalists of the future."

See dotJournalism's 10 point guide to successful work experience:

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