The University of Birmingham’s senior management were out doing damage to the University’s reputation yet again recently. Many of you may have seen the recent story in the Times Higher, Advert for unpaid research position withdrawn. This followed the decision by the University of Birmingham to advertise an ‘Honorary’ Research Assistant post in the School of Psychology. The duties for this post required candidates to be willing to “support a new clinical research study of mental illness in adolescents and young adults”, to work for two days a week, and to have access to a motor vehicle.
The catch – the post was entirely unpaid!
In response, UCU rapidly issued a press release opposing these practices, on the grounds that it undermines the principle of equal pay and is discriminatory. Legal opinion reported in the Times Higher also pointed out that this might well fall foul of minimum wage legislation.
Never shy of performing remarkable U-turns in the light of media attention, the University of Birmingham quickly issued a statement claiming that it had decided to no longer proceed along this route of hyper-casualization. The statement read, “Although the Honorary Research Assistantships were conceived as training positions the University recognises that this was not clear and has, consequently, withdrawn the advertisement.” BUCU will seek to continue to ensure that this extraordinarily concerning development of unpaid University work ceases to be considered acceptable.
Rather embarrassingly a note of the fiasco also appeared in the HE section of the THE’s weekly roundup of news, where it stated that:
‘… the advert disappeared after the University and College Union denounced it, joining critics including the science writer Ben Goldacre. The incident follows the furore over unpaid work for jobseekers, an issue that rose to prominence when Cait Reilly took legal action against the government after being forced to stack shelves unpaid at Poundland. You might think Birmingham was well placed to appreciate the pitfalls of unpaid work schemes: Ms Reilly is a recent Birmingham graduate.’
In the meantime, we have issued an open letter to the vice chancellor, in which we seek to clarify whether this unpaid post, and not just the advertisement for it, has been withdrawn. We also seek to ensure that anyone recruited to do this work is properly remunerated, and to ensure that no unpaid positions are created at the University of Birmingham.