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Oxford University lecturers on personal services contract claim employee status

Two Oxford University academics are challenging the university in the Employment Tribunal after being ousted from the course they have taught for 15 years following a long campaign for better contract rights for themselves and their colleagues.

Posted on 23 January 2023

Alice Jolly and Rebecca Abrams, creative writing lecturers, claim that even though the University of Oxford employed them on a personal services contract, in fact the terms of their employment mean that they are employees and as such as a number of their fundamental workplace rights have been contravened.

The university finally said it would offer more appropriate contracts in a letter to the Society of Authors (SoA) in April this year, then two months later Alice and Rebecca’s longstanding contracts to supervise students on the MSt Creative Writing Years 2 course were not renewed.

Alice and Rebecca believe the move is a direct result of their role as members of the SoA trade union with whom they have been campaigning since May 2018, arguing that colleagues represented in the ranks of University of Oxford lecturers, should have been contracted as “workers” and not “personal service providers”

Alice and Rebecca claim they have been unfairly dismissed and subjected to a detriment for Trade Union activity.

Both authors also claim that the University of Oxford has failed to pay them adequately for holidays and that they have been penalised for whistleblowing.

In a claim filed with Watford Employment Tribunal on Wednesday 16 November, Alice and Rebecca state that their case is at its heart about the employment status of lecturers who have been hired on personal service contracts. They maintain that their employment status at the University of Oxford 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.

Rebecca Abrams said:

"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 per cent of its staff on precarious contracts. This is 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 world-wide reputation for academic excellence relies."

Alice 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 too often universities will only offer zero hours contracts which offer no job security and sometimes pay as little as £25 an hour. Often the hourly rates do not include preparation, so the real level of pay may be half of the stated amount. This is not about Rebecca and my personal circumstances. It is about the future of Higher Education and also about the status of the writer.”

Alice and Rebecca are supported in their claims by new strategic litigation fund Law for Change. David Graham, co-founder of Law for Change said:

"The Law for Change fund is proud to support Alice and Rebecca’s challenge standing up for better contract rights for university lecturers.

“Our mission is to back legal actions that have a clear social benefit and the continuing erosion of lecturers’ employment rights in higher education institutions is an area we are as a Fund particularly concerned about.

“It seems clear to us that a positive outcome for the claimants has potential not only to secure better contract rights for Alice, Rebecca and their colleagues but has wider implications for lecturers working under similar sham contracts across the academic community."

They are represented by Leigh Day employment solicitor Ryan Bradshaw, who said:

“The use of contracts that misrepresent the employment relationship is bad enough but in this case that has been compounded by the disgraceful treatment of two lecturers who stood up for their rights and the rights of their fellow workers. It is regrettable that a venerable institution like Oxford University has behaved in this manner. It is even more regrettable that they have refused to remedy the situation that they have created. We have been left with no option but to pursue the matter through the courts.”

Ryan Bradshaw
Discrimination Employment Human rights

Ryan Bradshaw

Ryan advises on human rights, discrimination and employment law

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