Stairway to employment? Internships in higher education


This article aims to shed light on the current debate regarding the role of internships in higher education in graduates’ employability. In specific, it analyses empirical data on a large-scale study of Portuguese first-cycle study programmes, in order to explore indicators of the professional value of internships in the employability of higher education graduates. Results demonstrate that study programmes that include internships tend to significantly enhance graduates’ employability, particularly within the universe of polytechnic and public higher education institutions. Besides the instrumental value of internships, the impact of the nature and structure of the internship on the percentage of unemployed graduates are also discussed. Mandatory internships and the inclusion of multiple, shorter internships throughout the degree are negatively associated with unemployment levels. Results indicate work-based learning can be used as a successful strategy to bridge theoretical knowledge and practice and enhance graduate employability. These findings provide important insights for the evaluation and/or the design of internship programmes in higher education.

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  1. 1.

    In this article, the graduate unemployment rate reports to the percentage of graduates registered in the Employment and Vocational Training Institute (IEFP) in June 2013.

  2. 2.

    In this article, we use this two terms interchangeably, as is frequent in the current (public) discourse (Eurostat 2009). We do, however, acknowledge that employment and employability may have different meanings in theoretical approaches. While the former refers to graduates’ establishment in the job market after graduation, the latter focuses on the personal attributes of graduates which enhance their ability and probability of accessing a job (Stiwne and Alves 2010; Teichler 2009).

  3. 3.

    The full list of the overall institutional landscape can be consulted at

  4. 4.

    Two-stage degrees were composed of a three plus two-year study programme (Law 115/97, 19th September, Comprehensive Law on the Education System).

  5. 5.

    Decree-law 74/2006, 24th of March.

  6. 6.

    Data on all FCDs offered in 2012/2013 are available at

  7. 7.

    The systematic and periodic publication of unemployment reports concerning higher education graduates started in 2007 (Law 38/2007 of 16th August). Data are available at Other research studies prefer to analyse graduate employability considering only six months after graduation (vide, inter alia, Bowes and Harvey 1999; Knouse et al.1999; Sagen et al. 2000). However, these figures may be deflated, as this tends to be a period when many graduates may not be actively seeking for a career or may be undertaking further qualifications (Almeida 2010: 79).

  8. 8.

    This dependent variable allows us to circumvent the caveats associated with measuring graduate unemployment using a smaller time frame after graduation, as such rates may be deflated due to other national government strategies aimed at assisting (under)graduate students in the development of employment skills and in the attainment of work-related experiences. The Portuguese Ministry for Qualification and Employment launched a cooperative education programme, partially funded by the European Social Fund (“Medida Estágios Profissionais”, created by the Ordinance no. 268/97, 18th of April). At the end of the 12-month professional internship, those individuals who do not find a job afterwards are registered in the regional employment centres as “unemployed individuals looking for a job for more than 12 months”. Although no official statistics are available regarding the percentage of graduates that have benefitted from this programme, it is estimated that more than 20 thousand people aged under 25 have participated in these internships (in “Programa ‘Estágios Emprego’ prolongado até ao final de 2014”, Público (available at Only when graduates return to the official unemployment database, there is a clear image of the impact of curricular internships in youth unemployment.

  9. 9.

    Designations of supervised learning experiences in working context are diverse. Literature review on this topic revealed that the most common designations are internship (Callanan and Benzing 2007); practicum (Ryan et al. 1996); traineeship; apprenticeship; work placement (Wilton 2012); vocational training (Kessels and Kwakman, 2007); sandwich courses (Santiago 2009); or cooperative education (Teichler 2009).

  10. 10.

    Scientific internships (in research projects, for example), which are typically developed in academic contexts, were not included.

  11. 11.

    Available at

  12. 12.

    This rate was estimated per field of education, according to the second level of the classification of the International Standard Classification of Education (UNESCO).

  13. 13.

    Official data are subjected to the usual caveats. These official figures do not account for the fact that many graduates may not be employed in an occupation for which they have been trained for. Also, it is questionable to assume that those not registered in the employment centre are employed. This has to be looked at with care, since there might be other reasons for not being registered at the employment centres, namely the prosecution of studies. In fact, many Portuguese students may opt to continue their studies, as full-time students, enrolling directly in a second-cycle study programme (Stiwne and Alves 2010). A similar pattern can be found in many other European countries (Bowes and Harvey 1999).

  14. 14.

    See, for example, the National Statistics Institute’s (INE) Labour Force Survey of 2014 (available

  15. 15.

    All regression models presented in this article have been verified to ensure that there are no violations of the rules of the regression models. Statistical tests and graphical representations were performed to see whether the regression model assumptions of the residuals independence and variances homoscedasticity are checked. The multicollinearity was not a concern since that all VIF values are well below 5 (degrees with internships = 1.36; higher education system = 1.24; type of institution = 1.08; % of institutional unemployment = 1.20; % of scientific area unemployment = 1.23).

  16. 16.

    This estimation takes into account the unstandardized coefficient of −.070.

  17. 17.

    The regression model was broken down further to investigate whether these broad trends were maintained if we excluded medicine and nursing degrees. The direction of regression estimates and their significance remained largely similar to those presented.

  18. 18.

    Considering the regression unstandardized coefficient of −.139.

  19. 19.

    This estimation is valid if all other variables are held constant, considering the unstandardized coefficient of −.141.

  20. 20.

    This estimation takes into account the unstandardized coefficient of −.202.

  21. 21.

    “Site com taxas de desemprego e abandono dos cursos vai ajudar instituições a melhorar”, in Público, 10.06.2014 (available at].


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Research reported in this article was financed by the project “Impact of internships on graduates’ employability”, funded through the National Strategic Reference Framework (QREN) and co-financed by the European Social Fund (ESF).

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Correspondence to Gonçalo Paiva Dias.

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Silva, P., Lopes, B., Costa, M. et al. Stairway to employment? Internships in higher education. High Educ 72, 703–721 (2016).

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  • Graduate employability
  • Employment
  • Higher education
  • Internships
  • Portugal
  • First-cycle degrees