Beating unpaid internships at UCL

PGWA will post accounts of the experiences of students and workers in campaigning and organising here so that we can share and learn from each other. If you want to share your experiences in relevant campaigns and lessons you think can be learned from them, please email postgraduate.worker [at] gmail.com

A UCL-based activist and PGWA supporter explains how staff and students forced the withdrawal of advertisements for unpaid research positions. These are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of UCL UCU, UCLU student union, the PGWA, or other individuals involved in the campaign described.

We were first alerted in late July 2012 to an advertisement for a number of unpaid internships working on a clinical research project with the Anna Freud Centre, an institution associated with UCL. The internships were based at UCL, and were part- or full-time, lasting 6 months. They were targeted at graduates or current students of first degrees in psychology and associated disciplines. The adverts clearly described full-on jobs with specific and serious responsibilities, involving skilled scientific work and direct contact with human patients/subjects. The advert was subsequently taken down, but was preserved on Ben Goldacre’s blog.

Our first step, as activists in the UCL UCU branch and the student union, was to draft a public statement, and post it on the UCU branch facebook account as a note inviting signatories. We posted it with UCU branch officers and student union officers as the first signatories. The statement explained our reasons for opposing the internships, including:

  • The exploitative nature of offering unpaid work “opportunities” to early career researchers desperate to improve their CVs in competitive times of high unemployment and poor job prospects
  • That relying on unpaid and underpaid labour legitimises and hides the continued underfunding of vital research
  • That because only more privileged individuals can afford to work for nothing for months at a time (usually those with families both able and willing to support them to do so), the practice perpetuates and exacerbates the disproportionate dominance in research careers. Not only of individuals from richer socioeconomic backgrounds, but also of white, heterosexual, able-bodied cis men. As well as being discriminatory, this ultimately harms research as a whole by restricting the perspectives and experiences of those contributing.

The statement ending by calling on UCL and the Anna Freud Centre to withdraw the posts, re-advertise them with appropriate salary, and publicly promise to forego the use of unpaid internships in the future. We invited supporters to sign by commenting on the post or by emailing an anonymous email address we had set up for this purpose. We also posted the email addresses of the Provost (Vice-Chancellor) of UCL and the head of the Anna Freud Centre, and invited supporters to politely message them about the issue.

Next, we set about publicity. Some of this was on Facebook, but I think the key was Twitter. The message quickly spread from our contacts to their contacts, to theirs, and it was soon picked up by commentators with very large numbers of followers, such as Ben Goldacre. Within the next two days, we had large numbers of signatories, bloggers were writing articles, the UCU national office had issued a public statement, and an opinion piece had appeared in the Guardian’s Higher Education Professionals network. As far as I could find, all articles were either impartial reporting, or supportive of our position. Twitter is uniquely powerful if you need to rapidly spread the word about an unethical practice and rouse public opposition.

Under this pressure, the adverts were rapidly withdrawn. The Anna Freud Centre issued a statement in which it attempted to defend the original attempt to use unpaid labour on the grounds that it would benefit the interns’ careers, and that the project they wished to carry out (it certainly appeared to be a worthwhile one) could not obtain sufficient funding. Somehow imagining that this would bolster their position they informed the world that the more senior researchers working on the project were also receiving no specific additional pay for the time spent working on it. In this writer’s view, this merely revealed that the exploitation involved went beyond the internships – as PGWA supporters we stand in solidarity with our more senior colleagues struggling for decent pay and against unreasonable, damaging expectations of long hours.

We are now trying to take this opportunity to achieve lasting change at our institutions. The UCU branch Joint Presidents have written openly to UCL’s Provost and the head of the AFC, thanking them for withdrawing the adverts, and inviting them to do two things:

  • Instead of shifting the consequences of underfunding onto early career researchers, they should endorse and join the ongoing campaigns by their staff and students against the government funding policies responsible.
  • To commit to a revision of internal policies, with the participation of the campus trade and student unions, that would abolish the use of unpaid internships for good.

They highlighted how this was an opportunity for both institutions to make a positive demonstration of their commitment to ethical employment and research practices. We hope that they will take it.

Some lessons I would like to share:

  • Public scrutiny can be a powerful tool for shifting our institutions to behave more ethically in some cases.
  • Twitter is an effective way of spreading the word quickly about an immediate issue that relates to a general latent concern, and making a high level of public disapproval very apparent to our institutions. There is clearly a great deal of opposition to practices such as these, which can be quickly coordinated and channelled when a particular instance pops up.
  • A number of supporters commented to us that Facebook was not the best place to post our statement, as this made it harder to spread the link on Twitter. In future, I would recommend making a blog post, perhaps on the website of your UCU branch, student union, or campus anticuts group.
  • Strong links between the student union and UCU branch, and between staff and student activists, were very powerful in facilitating our campaign. Building and strengthening this relationship on your campus is a very worthwhile exercise and will serve you well in all sorts of situations. Postgraduate students can play a key role in this, sitting as they do in something of a middle ground and being eligible to hold membership and elected positions in both unions.
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