some thoughts on learning, exploitation and that Birmingham ad

There’s been quite a bit of talk this week about the ad run by The University of Birmingham for an honorary two day a week research fellow. It was taken down relatively quickly after a tweet and facebook flurry. Birmingham claimed in their defence that they were worried about the potentially unfair way in which volunteer opportunities were distributed and that advertising them was better than patronage. The Times Higher followed up the story, as has at least one blogger – see Beverley Gibbs’ contribution on the campaign for the public university.

To my mind there are four issues here which are related and each is important. They are:

(1) what kinds of learning opportunities are offered to postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers
(2) whether these opportunities are a universal part of the postdoctoral and postgraduate experience or are available only on a competitive basis
(3) if they are competitive, what might be an equitable selection process, and who might decide who is selected and on what basis
(4) when is an opportunity really about learning and when does it become ‘exploitation’.

There’s been discussion about these things and indeed some action. The ‘Roberts’ money in the UK for example was directed to activities which involved postgraduate researchers in scholarly career learning. I saw a lot of workshops running and while these might have been – and are if they are still running – valuable, they were/are, it seems to me, hardly sufficient.

This is how it looks to me. On the one hand there are some doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who get to hang around research projects, write with mentors and some even do research which contributes to a larger project. But some are used shamelessly as substitute teachers or as unpaid research fellows. Yet at the same time and often in the same institutions, there are others who desperately want to get some teaching experience and it is never on offer. They would like nothing better than to hang around a big project, but the PI can’t make the time to make it happen. They cry out for their supervisors or mentors to write something with them.

There is something horribly random about this landscape and there is no doubt that it is deeply, deeply inequitable. There clearly does need to be much more done to change this situation via a coordinated set of policies, structures, regulations and incentives that will make a difference. But there are also particular institutional supervision and support cultures implicated here and these have embedded in them either shared or privatised practices around the distribution of learning opportunities, and shared or privatised understandings of what counts as learning and what counts as exploitation.

If nothing else, the Birmingham move at least brought this skewed topography centre stage. But it is highly likely to slip quietly off the agenda now that the ad has been withdrawn. It’s important that this not happen.

As my colleague Debbie Epstein from Cardiff argued earlier this week, there is a real need for a comprehensive review of postgraduate and postdoctoral learning opportunities – one that goes well beyond ‘training’. I agree and suggest that as a first stage, any review also MUST promote debate about what might count as a universal learning entitlement at this stage of formal education.

So this is my small contribution to raising the issue – and I think there will be more posts to come. What do you think ALL doctoral and postdoctoral researchers should be entitled to experience and learn and what should be available to just some?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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8 Responses to some thoughts on learning, exploitation and that Birmingham ad

  1. M-H says:

    Thanks Pat. I agree with everything you’ve said here. It goes to the liminal nature of candidacy; neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat, and unsure of your rights to boot. Uni of Sydney is bringing in a new phase of candidature next year: a ‘training needs analysis’ on enrolment, updated annually. It’s a good idea, but of course it will only be as useful as the people who are carrying it out. That will be individual supervisors, we think – although that’s not clear from the statements so far it seems likely that academics would want to be the person who assesses ‘their’ students. There has to be a balance between assuming that candidates have no skills and need compulsory ‘training’, and just leaving them to manage as best they can.


    • pat thomson says:

      In the uk there is lots of training and then there is supervision. The big gap is what’s needed as well as these. Some of what’s missing and/or in scarce supply can’t or won’t be provided either by individual supervisors or grad schools but require different kinds of institutional structural/cultural change. I should have added alt academic opportunities to the list too in the post as another “opportunity” randomly distributed.


  2. Susan says:

    My faculty (at Macquarie) has something similar. Six months into our candidacy we have to present our research plan and justification to a committee. At that time any training needs are identified and discussed, along with funding implications. But it doesn’t cover generalist academic training such as opportunities to teach and present, preparing and marking exams, working in collaborative research teams. Some people get those experiences from “life” – working on teams in other contexts, teaching in other places before starting a postgrad program. But others could probably do with some more structured education and training in how to go about these tasks before they become full-fledged academics and are launched upon a theatre full of unsuspecting undergrads. I’ve been very fortunate to work as a (paid) adjunct faculty at a few institutions where a Professor was responsible for the academic content and standards of the courses, and my job was to deliver and mark papers/exams under the supervision of the Professor. I wonder if that sort of structure could somehow be adapted for postgrad students or post-docs as part of their “training” for an academic career. Plus maybe access to some of the classes in pedagogy that are on offer in most universities that have a BEd or DipEd program.


    • pat thomson says:

      Yes. In uk generally only actual permanent staff on research and teaching track have access to the formal higher ed teaching qual, The PGCHE, postgraduate certificate in higher ed. Research fellows don’t. Postdocs sometimes do but generally don’t. Casual contract staff don’t as a rule. PGCHE has a mixed rep too, but that’s another story. Equity of access the issue here.


  3. Lsley says:

    Hey Pat. As someone currently going through this process, this has struck a cord. The training programme for post grads was something that I found invaluable on the whole, although varied individually! The opportunity to further develop the ‘academic identity’ alongside an experienced mentor certainly would be hugely beneficial and could help shape future development and growth. The thought of presenting at a conference chills to the bone, navigating the obstacle course of writing ‘quality’ articles for publication is mind boggling and the demons of doubt constantly chip away when it comes to research activity with those perched on pedestals, even if the pedestals are my own creation!! To have the opportunity of developing this voice alongside an experienced mentor is hugely beneficial. I know that I’m one of a lucky few who have accessed this support and do feel concerned for colleagues who don’t have the opportunities I have been given. Equality of access, a debate that needs to be held.


  4. ljclayton says:

    Agree with what you say. well done for keeping it on the agenda.


  5. Kat says:

    Equality of access is a big issue, I remember raising it about teaching experience when I was a PhD student on the student committee and the department, to their credit, created an application system for tutoring that meant everyone could apply. I’m sure patronage still goes on but it is better.
    As for the unpaid side of things, it is such a difficult issue, but one thing I often argue for is the need for academics to recognise the real financial strain that students and postdocs are under and before they create unpaid postdocs or graduate experience to stop and ask themselves whether it is OK that this job be unpaid. Sometimes if there isn’t enough funding for a position that academics want it means that that position just can’t exist, or that they should lobby for more funding, not ask students to work for very little or for free. Student’s willingness to work for free, or very little, and academic’s readiness to accept that means that many universities and departments have no real concept of how much it costs to run a research project, or a subject.


  6. CJ says:

    During my masters in Canada, I was ‘asked’ to do unpaid research and teaching assistant work (similar to Susan’s description of lectures/grading) unrelated but in addition to the grant that funded my actual thesis project work. I was told this was “opportunity” even though it broke the university regulations, which stated that this work must be paid. Problems developed in my relationship with my department when I pointed this out. Complaints or protests from students are dismissed as too much unearned “entitlement” in ignorance of the “privilege” of being in that particular programme. Surveying peers and friends in higher degree programmes, I found I wasn’t alone, as many were and still are exploited paid or unpaid as research or teaching labour and this is reflected in extended degree completion times. It is not unusual in my experience to find graduate students in what are effectively three or four years (my dept completion time average last year was 3.6 years for thesis-based masters, I escaped in 3) instead of two year masters, or five to seven year PhDs. The bulk of their time becomes taken up in teaching or research positions unrelated to their own projects. These positions are unpredictable in duration or workload, adding to uncertainty. The university is still happy to collect full-time fees, and students endure extended periods of severe financial strain and uncertainty and become very resentful and stressed, which in turn impacts their personal lives and mental health. I’ve seen bright and beautiful minds and people destroyed through indentured servitude, and gradstudents echo the internalising self-blaming comments similar to people in abusive personal relationships.

    There is a clear distinction between what is valuable experience and what amounts to outright exploitation. At some pint this must detrimentally impact training objectives, particularly when some of the most gifted students want nothing more to do with the academy. What probably bothers me most is the dehumanising academic culture that permits or even expects this. If the reaction to Birmingham is any indication, things might not be so different in the UK and I pray this is not becoming the norm.


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