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Nothing ‘Honorary’ about Unpaid Work

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Nothing ‘Honorary’ about Unpaid Work

Last week the University of Birmingham advertised for an Honorary Research Assistant to work in its School of Psychology. 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.

This is simply an exploitation of the current graduate job market. With high levels of graduate unemployment and a specific challenge in finding higher-skilled jobs, there is a large pool of graduates desperate to kick start their career. 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.

As well as a basic moral argument that people should be paid for their labour, this ‘job’ clearly discriminates against less affluent students (by which we generally mean ‘students from less affluent families’). Without parents to support them, 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 undermines their social mobility and potentially reduces the overall quality of the applicant pool. The University and College Union today commented on how this position undermines principles of equal pay and is discriminatory.

Let’s not get confused and think “Oh, but there have always been unpaid internships”. The idea of people somehow supporting themselves whilst going to companies and charities for a few weeks or months to enhance their CV is damaging in itself; the NUS, TUC, Intern Aware, Interns Anonymous and Graduate Fog are campaigning against unpaid internships and lay out the impact this type of work experience has. In contrast though, this is NOT an internship – it is open-ended, not for a fixed period of time and has all the appearances of fee-earning work. It looks just like a job, only you probably don’t get a contract or any statutory rights and you don’t get paid.

The work appears to be associated with a specific project and you do wonder who is funding it and on what basis. Are they a grant-giver interested in legacy and graduate employment? Was this unpaid labour an integral part of the bid? Is this how Birmingham will apply for all their grants now, and does this mean all other Universities will start removing costs associated with the lowest level of labour just so they can compete? Will Professor Wood get a pat on the back at his annual appraisal for his attempt at commercial acumen? Maybe I’m worrying about nothing, so I thought I’d submit a Freedom of Information request and find out who was funding the research. You can do the same here, maybe someone could ask them how many other unpaid, non-contracted researchers they have. To get a sense of perspective here, this 40% Research Assistant might cost £10,000 a year, and the School of Psychology boasts a £8M pa grant portfolio. Times must be hard.

Birmingham can only offer this unpaid post because they claim it is carried out on voluntary basis, which means it will not have any form of contract of employment. Is this really the most appropriate model of employment for a researcher who will be carrying out initial and ongoing assessment of young people seeking help with their mental health? Is this what state-of-the-art psychology looks like …. a highly vulnerable group being dealt with by a transient uncontracted worker?

We’ve argued against unpaid commercial internships for a while now, and seemed to be starting to make some progress. This disingenuous -“Honorary”- job is not only a step backward but is much, much worse because Birmingham is one of our leading Universities. A producer of job-hungry graduates. A place of learning. A place of thoughtfulness. A place of reason. An institute to be trusted, not a shady second-hand car business working under the railway arches trying to cut every corner it can.

By Beverley Gibbs, who spent her earlier career in engineering, business and research management and is now completing a PhD at the University of Nottingham where she looks at Science in Society.

  1. A routine part of Clinical Doctoral training is the undertaking of (usually unpaid) placements. They tend to be in hospitals, rather than in universities. Of course, where they are in hospitals, they are – pretty much by definition – with vulnerable groups; whereas the majority of campus research is either with healthy subjects or so emphatically separate from treatment as to be covered by a wide range of safeguards.

    If you are investigating this issue, a comparative study of the treatment of unpaid workers in the NHS could be of interest. You might find profession-wide information which puts Birmingham University’s practice into context. (Equally, you might not.)

    In addition to your FOI request about funding, an enquiry about the ethics procedures surrounding the research would be worthwhile. It’s generally a university, funding body and British Psychological Society requirement to have ethical scrutiny of all projects carried out in Psychology departments. Where there is contact with vulnerable groups, this should definitely be the case, and the potential impact of the research on the patients should have been evaluated.

    Josie (non-Psychologist who works with Psychologists ….)

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