Opinion

Lloyds’ mistreatment of scholars typifies lack of interest in social mobility

Having seen recent, important discussions about the Crankstart scholarship and whether its volunteering requirement unfairly burdens low-income students, I was disappointed to note that there was no mention of the Lloyds scholarship, despite the contemptuous way in which Lloyds has treated its scholars during the pandemic. 

Lloyds Bank offers their scholarship to low-income students attending certain universities including Oxford . They provide a fixed bursary, a mentor, and the guarantee of a ten-week summer internship at one of several of their locations in the UK. Scholars can apply for this in their first and/or second year. In return, the bank requires 100 hours per year of volunteering by all scholars in their university communities. Compared to the Crankstart scholarship, which is offered automatically to low-income students at Oxford, the Lloyds scholarship entails a competitive application process beyond an initial income assessment, with a small number of students per university selected each year.

Considering the short length of Oxford terms in particular, the volunteering requirement is an extremely challenging one. In return for this hard work, however, the programme promotes social mobility by strengthening candidates’ CVs and allowing them increased financial freedom during their time at university. For me, this extra money has meant the difference between having to ration my funds in the last weeks of term and being able to live comfortably while in Oxford. The prospect of a paid internship at a prestigious bank gave me hope that my applications for graduate jobs would stand out from the crowd, something which I have previously struggled with. This scholarship is a lifeline to me and many other low-income students.

During the first wave of the pandemic, Lloyds understandably cancelled the scholars’ internships due to take place that summer. As a gesture of goodwill, they paid all scholars the salary they would have been paid had they taken on an internship. While I was devastated to miss out on this chance, I was heartened to think that I still had the opportunity to apply next year. Lloyds suspended recruiting for the 2020-2021 intake, meaning there would be no additional competition for limited places in 2021. I accepted that this was to be merely one of the many job market casualties of the first lockdown. 

Then, in December, scholars received an email cancelling the 2021 scholars’ internships, stating:

‘we pride ourselves on offering placements which offer high levels of line manager support, face to face development and great networking and at this given time we are unable to guarantee this experience.’

For several reasons, this move clearly demonstrates that Lloyds’ commitment to social mobility is no more than a facade of corporate responsibility for the sake of public relations, and that their internship programme for scholars was always more about finding prospective employees than promoting social mobility. 

Firstly, this decision was incredibly pre-emptive. This is not to say that by July the country will be running normally, but that by cancelling the internship over half a year in advance they have excluded the possibility of adapting to the changing circumstances of the pandemic. At the time of writing, the UK’s vaccination programme is firmly underway, with around 20% of the population (concentrated in the most vulnerable) having received at least one dose. By the summer, it is likely that all of the most vulnerable will be fully vaccinated, and that many of the harshest restrictions will have been lifted. Whether in-person internships could or should sensibly be allowed to go ahead at that time is not something on which I feel qualified to offer an opinion, but it is clear that this decision made in December, before we had even begun vaccinating the population, did not consider the possibility that circumstances could improve. 

Even if Lloyds would be unable to offer in-person opportunities during the summer, their decision is unfairly binary, presenting no alternative to the usual internship. As a law student, I am pursuing vacation scheme opportunities at law firms this year, and all of these firms have adapted their offerings so that their vac schemes are available entirely online, paid at the same rate as before and presenting the same opportunity for students to interview for training contracts at the end. While I can understand the cancellation of the Lloyds scholars’ internship during the first lockdown, when remote internships were completely alien to most companies, the bank will have had over a year by this summer to have adapted their processes to offer a valuable online opportunity, as many other companies have done. Additionally, their staff will have been working from home since the first lockdown, and the bank is therefore clearly capable of instituting remote work policies which could easily apply to interns. Their decision to cancel for the second year running means that students like me will not have been given a single chance to gain the work experience we were promised in return for an extortionate amount of volunteering. In making so much of the concept of guaranteeing an experience, Lloyds completely ignores the fact that no scholar would expect the experience of an internship at this time to be the same as usual, but that they would still find a virtual internship a valuable, if imperfectly executed, opportunity. 

Most importantly, their decision is utterly hypocritical. I have spent some time discussing the logistics of an internship in a pandemic, and why Lloyds’ reasoning has been wrong in this regard. There is a more insidious aspect of their response, however, which is the basis for much of my frustration, and which explains why their reasoning is so shoddy. In the email cancelling the second internship, Lloyds simultaneously offered scholars the opportunity to apply for ‘a small number of highly competitive opportunities’ in the bank’s summer placement scheme. Now, scholars who have dedicated themselves to volunteering no longer have a guaranteed chance to improve their career prospects, but rather a chance to apply for an internship just like any other university student in the country.

Whereas the application process for the scholars’ internship amounted to stating one’s preferences as to location and department, applying for a summer placement is just as rigorous as applying to any other graduate opportunity at a large company. The summer placement is the same length as the internship, paid at the same rate, and is available in practically the same departments. I could not find any information on whether the placement will be online or in-person, but it is highly likely that it will be online this year. Why is it impossible to guarantee the experience of the scholars’ internship, but perfectly possible to guarantee the experience of the summer placements? Apparently, the internship provides ‘specific university application workshops’ and ‘access to the Lloyds Scholars team’, which the summer placement does not. I do not see how either the workshops or the access to dedicated support could not have been offered online at very little burden to the bank, or how an opportunity which did not have these features could not still be incredibly valuable to underprivileged students. 

The only reason I can see for the cancellation of one scheme but not the other is simple – those who are motivated to undergo the incredibly long process of applying for a summer placement are far more likely to become employees at the bank after graduation, whereas scholars are far more likely to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Lloyds is willing to decimate many underprivileged students’ biggest chance at improving their social mobility for the sake of concentrating resources on prospective employees. The team, in response to my concerns, told me they would be looking at offering additional support to scholars ‘potentially through the provision of some one-off workshops or discussion groups’, as though a one-off workshop can compare in any way with a ten-week internship which provides work experience, employability skills and networking opportunities. Indeed, if they can offer a one-off workshop as compensation, why did they previously say that one of the reasons they couldn’t offer the internship was that they couldn’t offer tailored features such as workshops? Instead of making their motivations explicit, the bank has made spurious claims about resources and ‘experience’ which are easily dismantled, maintaining a front of ‘our hands are tied’ while underhandedly prioritising recruitment over social mobility. 

Lloyds are offering another one-off payment this year. For some reason, it is £1000 less than it was last year, which is yet another unexplained and unexplainable choice on the part of the bank. It is this arbitrary and opaque choice which, although relatively minor, typifies their entire approach towards scholars in the pandemic. One of the problems with this situation is that there are relatively few Lloyds scholars in each university, with around only ten students per year group. This means that it is difficult for scholars to hold any meaningful collective power to fight for change. Another problem, as previously discussed, is that scholars hold little value to the bank outside of good PR, which means there is little incentive for the bank to act with integrity. I have resigned myself to the knowledge that I will not be offered a single internship by the bank during my time at university. It has been widely acknowledged that the UK job market has been crippled by the pandemic and the government’s response to it. Lloyds could have used this as a chance to support scholars and provide disadvantaged students with a now vital advantage. Instead, they have chosen to prioritise themselves and in doing so have completely lost my support.