An advert for an unpaid research post was taken down yesterday just 30 minutes after the University and College Union (UCU) released a statement condemning the practice of getting researchers to work for free.
The advert from the Anna Freud Centre (AFC) clearly stated that the six month research assistant post in the Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology at University College London (UCL) would be unpaid. The minimum pay for a research assistant post at UCL is £25,251 plus around another £2,500 in London weighting. Therefore anyone taking on the post would sacrifice at least £14,000 in pay.
Furthermore, as Ben Goldacre pointed out in his blog on the subject, the post at UCL actually breaks the institution's own guidelines on unpaid internships, which say they should last no longer than four months. http://bengoldacre.posterous.com/another-unpaid-researcher-post-in-uk-academia
Protests led to the swift removal of the advert, which came just a month after the University of Birmingham was forced to act equally quickly over its advertisement for an unpaid 'honorary research assistant'. http://tinyurl.com/c5cyw8b
The University of Birmingham tried to pin the blame on a rogue professor, while AFC offered the fact the work was in a good cause and senior researchers would also not be paid as justification. The fact that senior researchers are paid for their job means they would not be taking on a project without remuneration, as was clearly demanded of the research assistant.
Unpaid posts undermine the principles of equal pay, exploit people able to work for free and discriminate against those who simply cannot afford to. The higher education sector already suffers from huge levels of casualisation - only the hotel and catering sector employs more staff on temporary contracts - but attempting to get researchers to work for free represents a new low.
We have seen the damage unpaid posts, sold as an opportunity for people to get ahead, have done in other sectors. In journalism, for example, work experience or an unpaid internship is really only ever available to people who have someone happy to put them up for free and have the means to fund themselves for the duration of their work.
UCU, with the National Union of Students, has produced advice on internships http://t.co/hQvv1c7U
The bottom line is that it is work researchers are expected to do and they should be paid for doing it. If we allow the proliferation of unpaid posts then, while the work may well get done, those performing it will come from a seriously restricted pool of people - just those who can afford to work for free.
Universities should be striving for excellence, not seeking to exploit people who can afford to work for nothing as free labour.
Follow Sally Hunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ucu