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July 19, 2012

The University of Birmingham's decision to advertise for an "honorary" unpaid research assistant at the institution led to a huge outcry before the advertisement was eventually removed.

Beverley Gibbs, a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham, was among those attacking the move. Her unequivocal opinion, delivered in a guest post for the Campaign for the Public University blog, is that there is "nothing 'honorary' about unpaid work".

"Last week the University of Birmingham advertised for an Honorary Research Assistant...It looks to be quite interesting work - two or more days a week clinically assessing adolescents who are seeking help with mental health issues. Great!

"Oh - hang on it doesn't pay anything and you have to have a car. Not so great. In fact, appalling," she writes.

"This is simply an exploitation of the current graduate job market.

"Birmingham has higher-skilled work that needs to be done, but presumably because they consider there to be a labour excess have decided to let someone do it for free."

Ms Gibbs contends not only that there is a moral argument that people should be paid for labour, but also that the advert discriminates against students from less affluent families. "Without parents to support them," she argues, "which graduates can afford to work for free and run a car? Putting this kind of barrier up against a significant segment of potential applicants mobility and potentially reduces the overall quality of the applicant pool."

"This disingenuous - 'honorary' - job is not only a step backward but is much, much worse because Birmingham is one of our leading universities," she concludes. "A producer of job-hungry graduates...An institute to be trusted, not a shady second-hand car business working under the railway arches trying to cut every corner it can."

On her patter blog, Patricia Thomson, professor of education, also at the University of Nottingham, says that some doctoral and postdoctoral researchers are used "shamelessly" as substitute teachers or as unpaid research fellows. "Yet at the same time...there are others who desperately want to get some teaching experience and it is never on offer," she adds.

"There is something horribly random about this landscape, and there is no doubt that it is deeply, deeply inequitable. There clearly does need to be much more done to change this situation...But there are also particular institutional supervision and support cultures implicated here, and these have embedded in them either shared or privatised practices around the distribution of learning opportunities, and shared or privatised understandings of what counts as learning and what counts as exploitation."

Some, however, did spot an upside. As Sarah Burton, a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge's education faculty, pointed out in a mock fictional manner on her florapostewrites blog: "If nothing else, the openness with which Birmingham were acknowledging the unpaid aspect of the position represented a step forward in being honest about the...academic job market" - a remark she attributes to an "aged wizard". The post goes on: "It also opened up the opportunity to a much wider field - beforehand...unpaid research assistant roles were all in-house, a closed shop...So really, this was quite an enlightened move forward."

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