*N.B. This story is the result of a conversation on Twitter debating the casualization of academic posts. I fictionalized the conversation in order to explore the issues it raised about a controversial topic without it becoming a personal attack. The wizard does not in any respect represent my views. 27/12/12*
Once upon a time in the far away land of jobs.ac.uk, bordering the almost-mythical Avalon of academic employment, the University of Birmingham advertised an academic position in the Department of Psychology. Required was a research assistant, who would be an ‘excellent graduate’ with a PhD and access to a car, commit to working in the department two days a week and contribute significantly to a study into mental illness. The position would be ‘honorary’. What a nice term, so positive, so optimistic – how valued this research assistant must be! And the expectations of the department – so high, they expect this honorary research assistant to be among the best in their field. And self-sufficient too.
But there was something wrong. Peeling back the overgrown thorns that covered the entrance to the departmental palace revealed a horror: the honorary research assistant role was a sham. It did not allow that precious access to the isle of academic employment, for it was unpaid. No money. Nada. Nothing. Working for free.
Naturally when the postgraduate and early career princes and princesses heard about this they were furious. ‘Expect us to work for nothing?’, they cried, ‘that’s unfair!’ They were naturally concerned that all of their effort and hard graft during their graduate study was not being valued by academic departments expecting them to take on unpaid positions to contribute to studies that would ultimately benefit said department when the evil REF monster came to make its judgement on their impact (and eat all first born children). The outcry became such that the University of Birmingham publically withdrew the post. But the cat was out of the bag and the debate continued. Moreover, there were dissenting voices – ones that claimed that, actually, unpaid internships could be beneficial. Really? Could it be true?
One of the voices, an aged wizard with a long white beard in which fairies lived, got in touch with a group for postgraduates in sociology and the claims he made were fascinating. The wizard pointed out that actually this practice had been going on for decades and, 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 state of the academic job market. It also opened up the opportunity to a much wider field – beforehand, according to this wizard, the unpaid research assistant roles were all in-house, a closed shop, and only those who been tipped the wink from a mischievous elf would be in the running for the work. So really, this was quite an enlightened move forward – equal opportunities and all and because, as the wizard maintained, unpaid research assistant positions were standard practice, par for the course and so on – simply something we live with and accept as normal (a bit like wasps at your picnic, or rain in a British summer), we should see this advertisement as something of a move forward. Heading in the right direction. And, there were benefits too. This wizard pointed out that the prospect of publication greatly increased by taking on such an unpaid role, and that he himself had gained his first position in High Wizardry because of a publication stemming from his own unpaid research assistant position. It was a good thing in his view, to take on this sort of work. Though it was hard going at first it would undoubtedly increase one’s likelihood of gaining suitable access to that long wished for academic position.
Well, the postgraduate sociologist sprite who had been chatting to the wizard thought long and hard about this. It seemed inconceivable to her that a culture in which graduates worked long hours on their thesis, often supplementing this with low paid teaching in a system designed to move work away from highly paid senior wizards to the far more affordable graduate teaching assistants, and then demanded that they work for free so that the senior wizards could ready themselves for the REF monster, could ever be anything other than deeply exploitative. To her it didn’t matter that this situation was as old as the hills that surrounded the Ministry for All High Wizarding – just because something had been going on for donkey’s years (and donkey was extremely old) didn’t mean that it should continue. Especially not when the system of postgraduate research and training had changed. The fact was that lots of the postgraduate princes and princesses had enormous amounts of debt that were unheard of in previous generations. They had been made to pay far more for their undergraduate education than the current senior wizards and now, very often, in the struggle for the piecemeal funding that was available in wizarding academia (for wizarding was not so highly regarded anymore), many postgraduate girls and boys were supporting themselves through their study and worked long hours in other lowly jobs to supplement their living. Because of the REF monster and lack of money in wizarding (and let’s face it, the successive Grand High Governments of Philistinism were largely responsible for many of these problems), even postgraduates and early career researchers needed to have a wealth of quality publications and presentations in their sack of golden goodies. Like everything else, it was just the done thing.
The sprite began to wonder where wizarding institutions would end up if the cheap labour of postgraduates and early career researchers dried up. She feared that actually the poor underlings of wizardry were colluding in their own downfall – but also that if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any wizarding left to be done, that it would all crumble into so much dust and debris. She could see how, even if one railed against such positions, that they were still very tempting to take up. Better inside the ivory tower than desperately clinging to the mouldy ivy that wrapped itself around the bricks. And these fears and expectations played on each other and kept things exactly the way they had always been with no one daring to make changes. So maybe the aged wizard was partially right and the advertisement was A Good Thing. Now that everyone knew what was happening it couldn’t be secret anymore and maybe, just maybe, things might not carry on the way they were. After all, no one was really happy with the state of play, not even the Grand High Wizards. So even in all the misery, despair and rage there blinked a little sparkle of fairy dust hope and everyone fixed their gaze upon it and wished.
But of course, that wasn’t the end of the story….