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Oxford University

Oxford University academics win employee status legal challenge 

Oxford University tutors, Rebecca Abrams and Alice Jolly, have won their claim for employee status at an Employment Tribunal hearing.

Posted on 21 February 2024

Judgment was handed down week commencing 12 February after a hearing took place at the Reading Employment Tribunal from Monday 15 January to Wednesday 17 January 2024.

Rebecca and Alice, who have taught on the Masters in Creative Writing at the Department for Continuing Education at the University of Oxford for over 15 years, have always been employed on personal service contracts.  
 
They claimed that the terms of their contracts mean that they are employees. They argued that as a result of their personal services contract they had been denied a number of important workplace rights.   
 
Alice and Rebecca argued their case is about the employment status of lecturers who have been hired on personal service contracts. They maintained that their status at the University of Oxford was clearly that of employees and not as personal service providers or workers.  
 
Alice and Rebecca, who the judgment notes “demonstrate a level of dedication and care for students that all educators should aspire to”, had long argued that their contracts were a sham. In April 2022 the university said in a letter to the Society of Authors (SoA) that it would offer the academics more appropriate contracts. Two months later Alice and Rebecca’s contracts to supervise students on the MSt Creative Writing Years 2 course were not renewed. Both will seek a judgment that the failure to renew these contracts was an act of victimisation as result of their whistleblowing and trade union activity. 


In the ruling, Employment Judge R Read noted the power imbalance between the precariously employed tutors and the University of Oxford. Additionally, the judgment described how the tutors are not simply guest lecturers or speakers and they are held out to be full members of staff (with biographies) in the student handbook.  
 
The judge ruled that they were engaged on fixed-term contracts of employment and should be classed as employees. 
 
A future hearing will be scheduled to assess the implications of this ruling.  
    
Alice and Rebecca are supported in their claims by Law for Change and are represented by Leigh Day employment solicitor Ryan Bradshaw who instructed Richard O’Keefe from Old Square Chambers. They acknowledge the support of UCU and thank the Society of Authors for making representations on their behalf. 
  
Rebecca Abrams said:  
 
“This ruling is a vindication of everything we’ve been fighting for since 2018. Alice and I are skilled professionals teaching at one of the world’s top universities, yet we’ve been employed year after year on sham contracts that have denied us our employment rights and legal protections. With nearly 70 per cent of its teaching staff on precarious contracts, Oxford is one of the worst offenders, but this is an issue that extends across UK higher education. Casualisation is a race to the bottom – bad for teachers, bad for students, and bad for universities. I hope this ruling will encourage an urgently needed reboot in the way universities treat the teachers on whom they rely.”  
 
Alice Jolly said:  
 
“I myself studied at Oxford University and it is an organisation which remains close to my heart. I simply cannot understand why the University has spent four years (at huge cost) trying to silence me and Rebecca when they knew all along that the contracts are a sham. This legal action is not about our personal circumstances. It is about the future of Higher Education and also about the status of writers who teach in universities.” 
 
David Graham, co-founder of Law for Change said: 
 
"The Law for Change fund is proud to have supported Alice and Rebecca’s successful 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 Law for Change is particularly concerned about.  
 
“This positive outcome for the claimants will not only secure better contract rights for lecturers at Oxford university but also help others working under exploitative contracts across the academic community."    


Ryan Bradshaw said:  
  
“This is an important case that highlights the need for Higher Education providers to review and rethink their treatment of precariously employed staff. It is not acceptable for these institutions to continue to seek to avoid their legal obligations. The gig economy has no place in our universities.”

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