Indentures are a sign of universities' decline into a factory system

Unpaid research posts represent the latest step in the 'proletarianisation' of the academy, argues Ross Perlin

August 16, 2012

Recent graduates - those who can afford to, anyway - resign themselves to months of unpaid interning, treading water in the labour market. The jobless, thanks to the government's controversial workfare schemes, are pressed into uncompensated service in a modern version of Lenin's all-Russia subbotniks. Meanwhile, those fortunate enough to be employed in paid work fearfully contribute a collective 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime to their employers every year.

Now the employment practices of higher education have come under the spotlight. First was the University of Birmingham, which blithely sought an "honorary" unpaid research assistant to work at least two days a week on a "voluntary basis". Then it was University College London and the Anna Freud Centre, where researchers had the temerity to advertise for a research assistant intern based at UCL, full-time or part-time, unpaid for six months.

Subsequent outcries led to the rapid removal of both postings, but the mentality behind them continues to spread, slick as an oil spill, from sector to sector. We appear to be entering a golden age of unpaid labour, and the mighty and well-salaried are not short on justifications. "It's for their benefit, after all - they're making an investment," some counsel. "They don't have the experience anyway. They should be grateful for the opportunity," others chime in. "Do this work because you love it, not for the cash" is the sage advice of still others, whose nests have typically already been feathered.

Lost in all of this is the fundamental ethic of paying fair wages for a hard day's work, and consideration of the broader social effects that result when you break that link. As the science writer Ben Goldacre pointed out after the two recent UK positions were advertised, unpaid positions "are harmful to the culture" of the professions where they take root and "mean that the children of wealthy parents get in, get ahead, and do better". In academia, will we see the return of the "gentleman scientist" when what we really need is a diverse group of professionals secure enough to take risks?

Austerity, of course, is the master pretext, all about passing on the pain to the weakest link - and in the academic workforce that means postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and early-career academics. The advertisers of the six-month post excused themselves on the grounds that they were "in receipt of only very limited funding" and that none of the senior researchers, presumably salaried already, "will receive financial remuneration for the time they invest".

In higher education as a whole, the increasing use of postgraduates for low-paid, and even unpaid, work is chalked up disingenuously to funding cuts. In the US, the casualisation of the academic workforce has proceeded in parallel with a meteoric increase in tuition fees and other university costs. Both are symptoms of the same malaise: the diversion of resources to profiteers, administrators and those at the top of the pyramid.

"Casualisation is coming to all of us if we do not fight it," Philip Inglesant, a senior research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, told this year's University and College Union conference in Manchester, where the prevalence of fixed-term contracts came under discussion. The UCU's anti-casualisation committee continues to raise the alarm. Earlier this year at its inaugural meeting in London, the Postgraduate Workers Association called for both the UCU and the National Union of Students to investigate the conditions faced by PhD students. Likewise, a recent British Academy report identified postgraduate funding as "the neglected dimension", noting rising fees, a shortage of funding and the difficulty of obtaining loans - to which we might add the prospect of poor and burdensome working conditions.

On my side of the Atlantic, the casualisation of academic work is so far advanced that the American Association of University Professors has declared the tenure system, which now covers as little as 30 per cent of academic staff, "all but collapsed". Instead, contingent and precarious academic workers, under a confusing array of titles, now make up the clear majority: adjuncts, lecturers, instructors, part-timers, non-tenure track clinical faculty, postdocs, teaching assistants and so on. Earnings can be meagre - often less than $2,000 (£1,5) per course - and non-existent in some fringe cases. Unpaid research positions barely raise an eyebrow, although recent campaigning by adjuncts, postdocs and doctoral students represents a rare bright spot on the bleak American labour scene.

The larger global context is what sociologists Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio have called the "proletarianisation" of knowledge workers. The self-satisfied feeling of being engaged in the world of ideas and research - and thus somehow above the tawdry details of repetitive or manual work, different from other labourers - will not make a smidgen of difference in the end. Even in the sacrosanct academy, few will remain exempt from the precarious labour regime, which aims to maximise "flexibility" by using unpaid workers when possible and making sure that most paid workers remain malleable, "low overhead" and "just-in-time". Don't say you didn't see it coming. The stirrings of resistance will have to grow a thousandfold to stop it.

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