Today marked a new era in UK higher education. Nothing to do with tuition fees, the Research Evaluation Framework (REF), league tables or funding. The University of Birmingham showed what must be an unprecedented step of leadership. They advertised a job as an Honorary (i.e. unpaid) Research Assistant. Working as an unpaid research assistant at the University of Birmingham includes perks such as a desk in the Psychology department, a library card and a refund for the petrol you use driving around in your own car to conduct the research. Although Birmingham eventually withdrew the advertisement, the dam has been breached. Despite the moral and legal issues involved it is only a matter of time before another university advertises similar positions.
The tragedy of the Birmingham advert is that there would have been no shortage of applicants. This time ten years ago I sat my PhD viva. I had spent most of the previous nine months doing a data entry job, despondent that seven years of university had not yielded the rewards I had hoped for. I was tempted to offer my services free to a nearby university to get some more teaching experience or research experience, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My guess is that there are early career academics out there that not only thought the same thing, but actually offered their services. I also suspect that some universities that have accepted these offers. As it happens my career has been a really interesting one, albeit very different from the one I expected to have. Things were tough then; now they are even harder. Talented PhD graduates and not so recent PhD graduates, world experts in their field doing any work which will pay, spending their evening writing books and articles, hoping not for the dream academic job, but any academic job. They would happily join a university as an unpaid research assistant just to get a foot in the door.
As an undergraduate I regarded academia as a higher calling. A university was a place where the highest moral and ethical standards were upheld. I saw universities as fair places, where ideas were exchanged freely and frankly and where people progressed in the careers because they were good people doing their teaching and research to the best of their abilities and being rewarded on the merits of their achievements.
I have few complaints in life but enough has happened in the past fifteen years or so to disabuse myself of any such notion. But I have always clung to the view that universities were somehow different to the banks, multinational corporations, the City. Today the University of Birmingham led us into a new era.