Oxford University have failed to implement reforms to decrease the number of staff in ‘precarious’ jobs, despite the Higher Education Statistical Association reporting in 2016 that jobs at the University are the most insecure in the Russell Group.
An internal report by the University Administration and Services distributed to Oxford UCU members showed that 87% of research staff held fixed-term contracts in July 2017, marking a 5-year high.
55.3% of all academic staff above ‘Grade 6’, an Oxford job classification which includes all those who can act as supervisors, held a fixed-term contract in July 2017, compared to 54.6% in 2016.
The percentage of academic and related staff moving from fixed-term to permanent contracts also dropped from 1.8% to 1.5% in the year to July 2017.
The report was based on headcount rather than per contract as seen in the HESA study, in recognition that many staff members hold more than one fixed-term contract.
A spokesperson for the University told Cherwell: “We recognise that the majority of our early career researchers are on fixed-term contracts and we take very seriously the need to do more to support them.
“Our recently published Strategic Plan for 2018-2023 commits to enhancing the opportunities and support for early career researchers and we have established an Early Career Researcher Development Forum to find ways of improving their position, including doing more to build their skill sets and offer career support.
“We would also note that these figures reflect Oxford being such a research-intensive university, because the way research is funded leads to this type of contract. The figure also includes a graduate students undertaking part-time teaching and this flexibility suits them because they can balance it with their studies.”
In the April 2018 report, the University also promised that its quarterly review group would review those who had been on fixed term contracts for between 10-15 years.
The report read: “We should expect through its questioning of contract intentions that some employees will be transferred from fixed-term to open-ended contacts.”
However, Oxford UCU representative Patricia Thornton told Cherwell: “Open-ended contracts are not the same as permanent employment and do not necessarily confer job security, and the numbers of staff shifted to open-ended contracts did not represent a significant proportion of the total on insecure contracts in the end.”
The percentage of academic and related staff moving from fixed-term contracts to open-ended contracts increased from 0.6% to 0.7% in the year to July 2017.
There is no strict definition of a ‘precarious job’. The University Administration report only included percentages of those on fixed-term contracts as an indicator of precarity, while the HESA report also deemed ‘atypical’ jobs precarious.
The 2016 HESA report recorded that 76.9% of Oxford University academic staff were in these ‘precarious’ jobs, in contrast to an average 50.9% for universities nationwide. The figure for Cambridge University was 64.8%.
However, the precarity situation at Oxford and Cambridge is more serious than both the data collected by the University and HESA would suggest. As the data is based on statistics from the central University, college-only personnel, which include all college employees, Junior Research Fellows, and postdocs, are excluded from the findings.
Cambridge UCU anti-casualisation officer, Sandra Cortijo told Cherwell that such “hidden casualisation” was endemic at both universities. She said that Oxford’s own higher precarity rating is indicative of the greater teaching co-ordination at Oxford between faculties and the central University, meaning that there are fewer college-only posts.
However, Cortijo also added that some Cambridge colleges have tried to alter their model to assuage the prevalence of precarious jobs, in ways that Oxford has so far failed to emulate.
She said: “A number of Cambridge colleges have moved away from fixed term College Lecturer posts in recent years, preferring permanent College Lectureships, whereas the direction of change may not have been the same in Oxford.
“In Oxford, there is some evidence of tutorial teaching and other time-intensive contact with students being shifted away from permanent Tutorial Fellows and on to fixed-term early-career staff, or even graduate students.”
While in Cambridge posts to cover for staff on paid research leave often “provide comparable work conditions to a permanent academic position”, despite being fixed-term according to Cortijo, Oxford’s equivalent positions fail to offer the same level of security.
Cortijo added: “Oxford has in recent years advertised posts which involve — and pay — for only the specific teaching hours required, with no allowance for research time and no payment outside the teaching term.”
Fixed-term contracts in Oxford vary enormously in duration. The majority of academics Cherwell spoke to were on three-year contracts, but some had contracts as short as one to six months.
A current associate professor told Cherwell: “At the time that I received my doctorate, temporary positions were still relatively rare: the norm was that newly minted doctoral degree holders either applied for and received post-doctoral research positions for a year or two, or slipped right into permanent, tenure-track positions.
“In my case, I succeeded in landing a post-doctoral research position for one year, and then moved right into a tenure-track position. However, within ten years of that, I discovered that the new norm had become not just one fixed-term contract following the conferral of degree, but several.
“Most newly-minted academics that I know of— including my own DPhil students and recent graduates— can expect to spend up to a decade moving from fixed-term post to fixed-term post before landing a permanent job.”
The number of fixed-term contracts available varies throughout the year, with posts often only open for a single term.
One academic, who tutored at another college last Trinity to help with finals, said: “I was teaching 15-25 hours a week – at 15 hrs you start getting counselling because it is such mentally exhausting work, teaching.
“In the end I got £1500 out of it and an exhaustion related illness.”
Fixed-term contracts are notorious for their vagueness, and often it is up to the discretion of the employer what they will actually entail.
One laboratory manager told Cherwell: “In some of our contracts it is stated that working hours are as many as necessary to perform the duties, which leads to abuse from some line managers regarding how many hours you work a week.
“It is not uncommon to find people working 70+ hours a week as if they fail to do that, their short-term contracts won’t be renewed.”
One academic spoke of experiences where jobs, despite being classified as ‘research’ posts, would actually involve teaching and supervision.
One MPhil student revealed that he spent £6,000 a year on his degree despite only officially meeting his supervisor twice a year. In order to cover the costs, the same student was obliged to take on teaching posts at two different colleges, as well as tutoring A-Level students for six hours every Sunday. His monthly income is £800, and his rent costs are £625.
They said: “At the end of my one-year contract, it was renewed – something that was due to my employer’s generosity, who knew that I couldn’t finish my PhD otherwise, because I wouldn’t have had enough money.”
They added: “These people are the most academically qualified, yet they can’t afford to rent one room in one house.
“I’ve seen people have to pack up boxes and walk out because they can’t afford to pay rent – they’ve had to give up on PhDs halfway through.”
Neither does security seem to improve with age or experience. According to one academic, it is normal for academics not to obtain a permanent post until the age of 35, which is “insane in any other business”. He recalled a lecturer who had a series of five prestigious lectureships at a single college. However, once her contract expired she was left unemployed with no protection or provision.
However, despite the promise of overwork and little pay, competition for contracts remains fierce, with one academic suggesting that 200 applicants for a single Junior Research Fellowship was not unusual.
He continued: “My job won’t exist in June – there won’t be another Graduate Teaching Assistant. I’m going to have to apply for my own job, and we’ll see if I get it. But they can’t just keep me on forever – they are not allowed to.
“I’ll apply for upwards of 20 jobs, and I might get one – even though I should be top of the pile, I have a lot of experience in teaching, I’ve been in the Oxford system, I’ve got a book contract with a well-known publisher.”
Successful applications also frequently rely on references from current employers, meaning that employers will become aware as soon as academics begin looking for new posts.
Speaking to Cherwell, one researcher said: “This also puts us in a very difficult position. A position where regardless of how badly you are treated, you still have to put up with that in order to make sure you get a half decent reference to secure another job.”
One academic also believed that attitudes to recruitment had changed in the university in recent years.
They said: “There is no recognition of loyalty at this University. In any other profession – business, medicine, law – the biggest thing you can give to an employer is loyalty, and you are rewarded for showing that loyalty.
“Here, loyalty is seen as the worst thing, a kind of waste product. They now value those who have taught somewhere else, they value experience from outside of Oxford.”
Hiring in Oxford is still a highly opaque process however, with many positions still being awarded without being openly advertised.
“I got a job at a college through knowing people. One of the professors was on leave for this term, and I got a call over the summer from a candidate who asked me if I wanted the job, without an interview, and without an application.
“By the time the college had conducted an interview process, which would have cost them time and effort, they would have ended up selecting someone just because they ticked a few boxes.”
The stress of continually looking for jobs in order to survive in one of the UK’s most expensive cities, has been suggested to have repercussions not only for academic staff’s own mental health, but also the quality of their teaching.
One academic sighed: “It’s kind of ironic because you hear about mental stress from students on an undergraduate level, and you are supposed to be giving sympathy.
“But you go home and you are single, underpaid, overstressed and fucked off about everything.”
Although the Oxford UCU have made raising awareness of job precarity one of their key campaigns, academics complain that raising issues with the University is futile. Strikes, one academic admitted, “make absolutely no effect on anything at all”.
The researcher said: “I haven’t complained about this as it is kind of our understanding that is how the university operates. I don’t think that it is a fair system but not sure what can we do to change it.
“As many other things in this university, including bullying, equality and other policies, we feel that is a bit of façade to make the university appear as a wonderful employer but the reality is very different.
“When we raise complains about any matter, we are quickly shut down, ignored or even mistreated. And as we are in a fragile employment situation we just have to shut up and carry on, otherwise we won’t be able to secure employment.”
They said the University should be “making sure that these contracts are not legal”, and offering alternatives to HR for staff to report their concerns.
Oxford UCU rep, Patricia Thornton told Cherwell: “The entire phenomenon is profoundly detrimental to what a university is and ought to be. It literally renders the notion of academic freedom irrelevant, as no one on a fixed-term contract can be guaranteed to be able to exercise their right to conduct and disseminate resource.
“If the new norm across the University becomes precarious employment in academe, then the University will have failed to observe both the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, which charges universities with the responsibility of ensuring effective support of academic freedom.
“We are not quite to that point yet, thankfully; but, personally, as time goes by, I’m getting more and more uneasy about how closely we are skirting that line in academic research.”