Paid In Experience
On 31 July at midday, an anonymous post is made to ‘The University of Melbourne Confessions’ Facebook page.
“Anon yo,” it reads. “I’ve got a juicy situation and I’m looking for legal advice. Any law students, or anybody involved with the student union, your time to shine.”
Usually, the page is a platform for eliciting cheap laughs from fellow students but flippant tone aside, this 770-word diatribe seems to uncover something more serious than is obvious from the outset.
The writer of the post attends the Melbourne Business School (MBS) and is currently undertaking a Master of Management (Marketing), where they are enrolled in a core subject called Marketing Research. It’s “boring, typical foundation subject shit,” the student says.
For their major assessment, students have received a brief from NostraData, a marketing insight company that will be overseeing the semester-long project and supplying industry advice in an effort by the University to provide students with real-world experience. Or, as the student describes, treating them as “minimum wage survey monkeys without the minimum wage”.
“These guys are straight up getting fee-paying students to do the dirty work for them”, they write.
Teams of students are permitted to contact pharmaceutical companies (from a list supplied by NostraData) to obtain qualitative data, which they will then analyse and present back to the company. Each research team is expected to conduct three phone interviews, based on a list of discussion topics outlined in the brief.
Given the subject costs $3,820 for local students (even more for international students), it would be alarming to think that graduates are being roped into doing low-level work they would otherwise be paid to do in order to complete a unit. Secondly, it is not clear whether or not an employer-employee relationship exists here.
Deputy Head of Marketing at the MBS, Professor Simon Bell, says that the student’s attitude represents “the height of conceit”.
He maintains that the company concedes a whole lot for no guaranteed benefit, whilst the students gain an “incredible learning experience” and a deeper understanding of the data collection process.
“The company has to do all the work setting up these things, to get insight from an insignificant number of interviews and then sit through presentation after presentation, riddled with errors, to maybe get some insight that’s valuable to them,” Bell said.
Subject coordinator, Associate Professor Jill Lei, said that the project was created with learning objectives in mind, further diminishing the significance of the findings to NostraData.
This seems to conflict with the information NostraData Director Mike De Gama presents in his pitch.
“The insights that you’re able to deliver are actually really important to the strategic direction they take with their own pharmacy banners,” he can be heard saying to the cohort in the seminar recording.
Lei and Bell both mentioned that it is unreasonable to compare the benefits to the company to those of the student.
“Do we want to really want to wind it back and say ‘sorry, a consulting project is now defunct because a company tangentially benefitted from what you said?’” Bell asked. “That would be an incredibly sad thing for The University of Melbourne, that has been criticised for being too ‘ivory tower’.”
This is the second year in a row that NostraData has helped coordinate a live project at the University. Contrary to accusations made in the comments of the post, Lei stated that there is no deal that has been struck between the company and the University.
The student told Farrago they are hoping to ensure NostraData is more transparent in their interactions with students.
“I can definitely see how the research of students isn’t very useable at their professional level but then, since we’re paying for the privilege of doing it, that seems a little moot,” they said. “If the research is useless, don’t dangle the carrot in front of us and tell us what big boys we are for handling such an important task.”
Tom Crowley, UMSU Education (Academic) Officer, said that the subject sits “conveniently within a grey area”.
“There’s a difference between genuinely learning in a work environment and simply doing outsourced grunt work for a company’s private benefit,” he said. “I think this subject falls clearly in the second category.”
The student has been referred to UMSU’s Legal Division which is currently inundated with cases. Crowley sits on the Academic Programs Committee as an UMSU representative and intends to bring up the matter at their next sitting on 26 August.