UPDATE: I just came across this post by Ben Goldacre on unpaid academic positions.
Martin Eve (University of Sussex, UK), fellow member and contributor of the Guardian Higher Education Network, has published an excellent article about the vicious circle of free labour in academia: "Unpaid research internships reveal a dangerous hypocrisy in academia" (Thursday 2 August 2012).
I urge everyone at HASTAC to click on the link and read the complete article.
Martin pins down the case against unpaid research internships for Early Career Researchers (ECRs) in the UK very clearly:
Internships decrease the number of paid posts available. If there are two candidates – one with private means who can afford to do the job for nothing, another without – the law of the market dictates that the former will "undercut" the pricing of the latter.
This setup, which confuses privilege with perseverance, creates several additional problems for academia. At a time when we are trying to ensure the continued diversity of our student body, we are restricting to a specific socio-economic class the pool from which applicants are drawn to sit on the other side of the desk. What's more, as far as all mainstream reports go, everything in higher-education land is fine.
If you can't afford to pay somebody but can find someone to do it for free, the work will get done, and from the outside at least, the university will appear to be well-funded. No problems will come to light, while quiet exploitation goes on undercover. In short: free labour is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious circle. It is therefore in higher education's own interest to reject internships if we want to gather solidarity for the long game.
The question of unpaid ECR positions is in my view an expression of a culture of privilege and social inequality which in turn is reinforced by a mainstream cultural misunderstanding and underappreciation of the role of academic work. Work which is considered valuable to society is paid for. No matter what it might be, paid work is paid for because it is needed, because it is valuable. (Needless to say, volunteer work in some sectors, like charity, is of course valuable to society, but turning Higher Education work that can and should be paid for -that others get paid for or used to get paid for- into volunteer work should be unacceptable in most circumstances).
At the moment, it looks like postdoctoral academic professional development is only possible if one is willing to pay to work. Apart from aspiring fine artists, ECRs might be the only professionals willing to do this.
This also finds an expression in a related vicious circle: that of the assumption that all ECRs are or should be always-already equally able to pay out of their own pockets to continously attend and present at international conferences. There is an expectation that ECRs will all have the ability to afford unpaid and focused time to prepare articles for peer-reviewed publication (often taking months if not years) and engage in multi-tiered fellowship application processes without needing a paid job, or that pays enough anyway.
Unfortunately, many seem to consider this the normal state of affairs and see no need for a gradual reform in the professional culture of Higher Education. This is the perverse logic that seems to be at work, what Melonie Fullick (York University, Canada) has aptly called the "strangely skewed economy of the academy".
It is not too much to ask: the quiet acceptance of exploitation must stop. If Higher Education doesn't value its own work, who will?