Academics sue Oxford University over ‘Uberisation’ of teaching contracts

Two academics are suing Oxford University for employing them as gig economy workers in a case which draws on the landmark ruling that gave Uber drivers the right to paid holidays and a pension.

The two lecturers were employed on fixed-term “personal services” contracts to teach on Oxford’s creative writing course for 15 years, but these were not renewed in 2022.

The pair, Alice Jolly and Rebecca Abrams, claim the nature of their employment means they should be considered employees and their misclassification meant they missed out on several fundamental workplace rights.

“We are bringing this action on behalf of hundreds of Oxford University tutors who, like us, are employed on legally questionable casual contracts. Oxford is one of the worst offenders when it comes to the Uberisation of higher education teaching, with nearly 70% of its staff on precarious contracts. This is bad for teachers and bad for students,” said Abrams.

Jolly added that universities use writers’ CVs to market their creative writing courses, yet often they “will only offer zero-hours contracts which offer no job security and sometimes pay as little as £25 an hour” – which doesn’t factor in preparation time.

Ryan Bradshaw, a solicitor at Leigh Day, is representing the two lecturers using arguments similar to those he successfully used against Goldsmiths University, which draw on a landmark 2021 supreme court ruling. That case was a watershed moment for the gig economy, ruling Uber drivers were employed by Uber, not self-employed, and granting them better employment conditions.

According to Leigh Day, Oxford said it would offer more appropriate contracts to the lecturers in a letter to the Society of Authors in April 2022, but two months later Jolly and Abrams’s contracts were not renewed. The pair believe that their four years of trade union campaigning may have contributed to this decision, leading them to claim unfair dismissal.

They are also arguing that the University of Oxford has failed to pay them adequately for holidays, since under the terms of their contract they did not receive holiday pay.

The case is backed by the litigation fund Law for Change, which funds lawsuits with social implications. Its co-founder, David Graham, said: “The continuing erosion of lecturers’ employment rights in higher education institutions is an area we are as a fund particularly concerned about,” and that he hoped the case would help other lecturers hold their employers to account.

A claim was filed with Watford employment tribunal on 16 November, and the university’s response is expected in January, with resolution hoped to take place in the summer.

“This is the gig economy, at Oxford University. It’s pure precarity and it means the imbalance of power relationship between employer and employee is huge and can lead to all kinds of abuses,” said Bradshaw.

“These are people who would ordinarily be perceived as white-collar, privileged workers – they’re highly educated, really respected authors and writers, and they’re being forced to accept terms and conditions that undermine their legal rights. It’s astonishing – it shows the extent to which employers will seek to exploit workers wherever they can. You just don’t expect to see it in this environment, but here it is.”

Bradshaw said the Goldsmiths case, and the Oxford lawsuit if it is successful, could pave the way for thousands of university staff on insecure contracts to file similar claims, though he said they should aim to settle disputes through their union in the first instance to reduce costs.

He added that universities are one of the main sectors that operate a gig economy, and he believed it was because of their “increased financialisation and marketisation”, which had resulted in their becoming profit-seeking businesses run by top-down management.

Lecturers have participated in a series of strikes over insecure contracts and low pay and conditions in recent years. In November, the University and College Union (UCU) said that record numbers of its members took part in picket lines at more than 150 higher education institutions.

Oxford said it would not comment on the individual case while it is pending.

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