Employing free labour acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy for universities, reducing diversity in the workforce and weakening arguments for funding of paid posts, says Martin Eve
George Orwell once wrote, in a piece a trifle too defensive of an under-siege humanities while attempting to bridge the gap between two cultures, that “a mere training in one or more of the exact sciences, even combined with very high gifts, is no guarantee of a humane or sceptical outlook”. Universities, in their administration at least, seem intent on proving Orwell’s proposition.
University College London has just fallen foul of the angry Twitter mob and swiftly withdrawn an advertisement for an unpaid internship position within its department of clinical, educational and health psychology, following a similar case at Birmingham University last month. While Ben Goldacre has written an excellent response to this latest case, in a time of difficulty for early career researchers, universities need to buck their ideas up and hands-down reject the culture of internships that pervades our society. If not for the good of a humane system, then for their own sceptical and critical outlook.
The arguments against internships are well rehearsed, but as the message doesn’t seem to have sunk in, it’s worth staging them again. Firstly, internships decrease the number of paid posts available. If there are two candidates – one with private means who can afford to do the job for nothing, another without – the law of the market dictates that the former will “undercut” the pricing of the latter.
This setup, which confuses privilege with perseverance, creates several additional problems for academia. At a time when we are trying to ensure the continued diversity of our student body, we are restricting to a specific socio-economic class the pool from which applicants are drawn to sit on the other side of the desk. What’s more, as far as all mainstream reports go, everything in higher-education land is fine.
If you can’t afford to pay somebody but can find someone to do it for free, the work will get done, and from the outside at least, the university will appear to be well-funded. No problems will come to light, while quiet exploitation goes on undercover. In short: free labour is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious circle. It is therefore in higher education’s own interest to reject internships if we want to gather solidarity for the long game.
Another aspect that needs emphasising is the changed conditions under which early career researchers are now, and will be in the future, educated. A current 18-year old who moves straight from undergraduate study through a master’s degree into a PhD will, seven years from now, probably have spent £36,000 minimum (if they then receive PhD funding) or £63,000 without (assuming the PhD is completed in three years on a full-time basis).
This payment should not guarantee a job any more than it should guarantee a degree or classification. But for academia to ask for additional unpaid work from this person, under the Panglossian rhetoric of “opportunity”, is perverse.
The final, most damning point it’s worth making about academic internships relates to the business sector’s repeated claim that universities are failing to train students. This is an argument that the higher education sector rejects at every opportunity. Either it claims that universities reside in a pure realm of education that does not, and should not, cede to business, or otherwise, that the transferable skills gained by students are sufficient.
Universities should look long and hard at their own rhetoric. If we go with the former of these arguments, then training must be provided by employers – and that includes universities – at the start of proper employment. If the latter, as so many institutions want to claim, then it might be reasonable to ask why, within its own walls, the academy thinks that applicants should undertake unpaid labour to boost the “experience” on their CVs.