University College London’s Anna Freud Centre had been recruiting for an unpaid research assistant through an advert originally posted on the centre’s website last month.
The full- or part-time six-month position in UCL’s department of clinical, educational and health psychology was billed as an internship, with responsibilities including supporting the recruitment of participants to a clinical study and collecting participant data.
But after the University and College Union raised concerns and a petition opposing the role was posted on Facebook, the Anna Freud Centre withdrew the advert on 2 August.
The controversy comes after the University of Birmingham also withdrew an advert for an “honorary research assistant” position last month having faced fierce criticism on social media sites.
In a statement published on the centre’s website, the institution stresses that the project is a feasibility study that may not be able to go ahead without unpaid contributions.
“We would, of course, wish all involved to receive appropriate financial recognition of their contributions,” the statement says.
“However, the pilot study is in receipt of only very limited funding...and none of the senior researchers involved will receive financial remuneration for the time they invest.
“The proposed multi-site [randomised controlled trial] cannot proceed without substantial funding, which is highly unlikely to be awarded in the absence of a pilot study to demonstrate feasibility.
“In light of the feedback we have received, we will endeavour to identify alternative means of demonstrating the feasibility of the proposed research.”
The centre also claimed that the six-month period was needed to provide interns with training in the necessary skills and that their investment of time would have helped them to find suitable paid employment in the future.
But Sally Hunt, UCU’s general secretary, said that failing to pay researchers “undermines the principles of equal pay and is discriminatory and exploitative”.
“The higher education sector already suffers from huge levels of casualisation, but attempting to get researchers to work for free represents a new low.
“Universities should be striving for excellence, not seeking to exploit those who can afford to work for nothing as free labour,” she added.
A statement accompanying the Facebook petition adds that making research positions unpaid will worsen social inequalities in academia and education as a whole, “not only in terms of class, but also the diversity of individuals who can access these careers”.
According to UCU, the minimum annual pay for a research assistant post at UCL is £25,251 plus around another £2,500 in London weighting.