Fixed-term contracts disproportionately held by women and minority groups

“Casualised contracts magnify pre-existing inequalities in the workforce”

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A greater proportion of women and those from BME backgrounds hold fixed-term contracts at the University.

In 2018, the proportion of women in fixed-term contracts was consistently higher across the academic divisions, with the sharpest disparities in the Social Sciences where 56% of women were in fixed-term contracts compared with just 45% of men.

In the Medical Sciences Division, 85% of those from BME backgrounds were found to hold fixed-term contracts in 2018 in comparison to just 68% of those who identify as white.

For Social Sciences the respective figures were 66% to 45%, and in the Maths, Physical, and Life Sciences, the figures were 74% to 43%.

Overall, the proportion of all those of fixed-term contracts has increased significantly from 2008 across all divisions apart from Medical, with the Humanities Division seeing the biggest increase in the use of fixed-term contracts, from 23% to 32%.

In 2018, just under 50% of staff from the Maths, Physical, and Life Sciences, Social Sciences, Medical, and Humanities divisions, were on fixed-term contracts.

The University’s policy on ending fixed-term contracts requires dismissal to be “fair and transparent.”

Employees are informed three months before the end of their contract is “at risk”. When it is not possible to extend or renew the contract, an employee will be informed of the fact a month before its termination.

A University spokesman told Cherwell: “Oxford is the UK’s most successful University in attracting external funding to support our world-leading research. The funding packages support jobs for researchers at every career stage, including fixed-term posts. The larger number of fixed-term contracts results from this increased funding success, opening more opportunities for the next generations of world-class researchers. We have had particular success in attracting talented women to progress their careers with us, including those areas of the sciences where they have been traditionally under-represented.

“We do recognise that fixed-term work can create uncertainties and practical difficulties. We make extensive efforts to support staff on these contracts, including through personal and career development opportunities.

“All staff at Oxford, whether on permanent, open-ended or fixed-term contracts, benefit from our generous employment packages and support for future development. We are also working hard on moving staff onto open-ended and permanent contracts wherever possible. A growing proportion of these contracts are held by women, while the proportion of all staff on open-ended contracts in the sciences is now growing faster than those in fixed-term posts.”

The University’s policy is to ensure departments are “keeping contracts under active review and transferring staff to permanent or open-ended contracts wherever funding permits.”

The proportion of staff working on open-ended contracts in the sciences is now growing faster than those on fixed-term contracts. For example, in 2008, 75% of staff in Medical Sciences were on fixed-term contracts and 4% on open-ended contracts; By 2018, fixed-term contracts had fallen to 72% and open-ended contracts risen to 8%.

The proportions of women in permanent and open-ended positions has increased in some sectors. In Medical Sciences in 2008, 45% of permanent contracts and 53% of open-ended contracts were held by women. By 2018, women held 52% of permanent and 57% of open-ended contracts.

However, in a 2016 report the UCU also included open-ended contracts within their definition of insecure contracts, because their “employment is dependent on short-term funding.”

Their report read: “Employers like to emphasise the degree of choice and agency available to workers on casual or as they like to call them ‘flexible’ contracts, but it is obvious that your enjoyment of choice and flexibility will be shaped by which category you are in.

“It’s simply impossible to imagine that a workforce of this magnitude is comprised entirely, or even largely of the people who conform to the employers’ caricature of the jobbing professional who relishes the flexibility.”

Oxford UCU representative Patricia Thornton told Cherwell: ”Regardless of whether the University wishes to accept the UCU’s calculation of the HESA data on precarious contracts or not, it’s clear that in many divisions, the numbers of staff on casualised contracts have been rising.

“It’s important to note here that “open-ended externally funded contract” staff, whilst sometimes not counted as casualised, effectively face the same level insecurity: their employment is terminated if and when the external source of the funding is withdrawn. The key difference here is that, whereas a fixed-term contract employee is given an end date at the point of hire, the staff member on an open-ended externally funded contract is not; which is arguably even less secure for the member of staff, whose employment can come to an end suddenly and without sufficient warning if the funding is withdrawn.”

Just under 5% of staff in the Medical, Maths, Physical and Life Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities cumulatively are in open-ended or externally funded contracts in 2018. The figure was just 2.3% in 2008.  

Thornton continued: “Casualised contracts not only create a two-tier workforce within the university, with casualised members of staff effectively carrying out many, if not all, of the same duties as their permanent counterparts on a day-to-day basis, paid lower salaries and afforded a greatly reduced level of protection (and fewer benefits), but they also magnify pre-existing inequalities within the workforce, like the gender pay gap and the persistent underpayment of minority ethnic staff.

“There is a significantly higher proportions of women than men in fixed-term contracts across the divisions, and, disappointingly, that proportion has actually increased marginally since 2008 in the Social Science and MPLS Divisions, and increased significantly in the Humanities Division.

“Equally disturbing is that, despite Oxford UCU’s persistently raising this issue with the administration, and despite various commitments that have been verbalised across the university, the percentages of staff on fixed term term contracts have instead risen since 2008.”

One representative of the ‘Academic Precariat’ group, pointed out that these figures fail to account for those that have already left the sector due to casualisation.

They told Cherwell: “There are plenty of us around, but very little data or interest in us. I left the sector for a range of reasons, but most of them related directly to insecure employment and its consequences: a two-tier system in which casual teaching and research staff undertake work that mainly just enables senior academics to bring in big money projects, lack of respect for intellectual ownership of teaching/research materials produced on these contracts, feeling and being utterly disposable, lack of investment and interest in supporting career progression (why should they, when to offer us more secure employment would be to remove the props fora system which values REF and big grant money above all else?).

“Another big factor in my decision to leave after my short-term postdoc was the minimal prospect of ever being able to secure a contract long enough to actually qualify for maternity pay in the near future.”

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