Oxford sued by tutors over ‘Uberisation’ of teaching

Two authors who taught on university’s creative writing course were employed on temporary contracts for 15 years

January 23, 2023
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Two lecturers who were employed on temporary contracts at the University of Oxford for 15 years are suing the institution, claiming they should have been given the same rights as permanent members of staff.

Authors Alice Jolly and Rebecca Abrams, who taught creative writing, say they were “ousted” from their positions in part because of their campaign to secure better working conditions.

Their case – which has been filed with the Watford Employment Tribunal – draws on a Supreme Court ruling that gave Uber drivers the right to paid holidays and a pension.

Announcing the lawsuit, Ms Abrams said Oxford was “one of the worst offenders when it comes to the ‘Uberisation’ of higher education teaching”, with nearly 70 per cent of its staff on precarious contracts.

She said the action was being brought “on behalf of hundreds of Oxford University tutors who, like us, are employed on legally questionable casual contracts”.

The pair claim they were unfairly dismissed, subjected to a detriment for their trade union activity, not paid adequately for their holidays and have been penalised for whistleblowing.

Ms Jolly and Ms Abrams were employed by Oxford on a longstanding “personal services contract” to supervise students on the second year of a MSt creative writing course.

They secured an agreement to be moved onto “more appropriate” contracts in a letter sent to their union, the Society of Authors, in April 2022, but were then told two months later that their contracts were not going to be renewed.

The claim states the case “is at its heart about the employment status of lecturers who have been hired on personal service contracts”.

Ms Jolly and Ms Abrams’ status was “clearly that of employees and not as personal service providers as a result of the level of control exercised over them by the university and the manner in which they were dealt with during the course of their employment”, it adds.

Ms Abrams added that she felt such arrangements were “bad for teachers and bad for students”.

“It is simply inexcusable that the university is failing, as we believe it is, in its fundamental legal obligations to the very people on whom its worldwide reputation for academic excellence relies,” she said.

Ms Jolly said creative writing courses are “entirely dependent on the quality of the writers who teach on them and universities use writers’ CVs to market these courses”.

But, she said, universities often only offer zero-hours contracts to those who teach on the courses, with “no job security and sometimes pay as little as £25 an hour”.

These hourly rates often “do not include preparation, so the real level of pay may be half of the stated amount”.

She said the case was not about personal circumstances but “the future of higher education and also about the status of the writer”.

The authors are being represented by Leigh Day solicitors and their case is funded by Law for Change.

The University of Oxford said it was not commenting while the legal process was under way.


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