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?