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Two lecturers sue Oxford University over the ‘Uberisation’ of teaching contracts

Two creative writing lecturers are suing University of Oxford for misclassifying them as gig economy workers, arguing that the terms of their employment mean they were employees entitled to certain workers’ rights.

Alice Jolly and Rebecca Adams were employed on fixed-term personal services contracts for 15 years, working to supervise students on the Mst Creative Writing course, yet their contracts were not renewed in 2022. They maintain that due to the level of control exercised over them by the University and their treatment while working, they should have had employee status.

Talking about her motives, Adams says that “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.”

The case draws on from the 2021 Supreme Court ruling on the gig economy, ruling that Uber drivers were employed by Uber, not self-employed, and were therefore, as employees, entitled to paid holidays and a pension.

According to their legal representative, Ryan Bradshaw, the University in a letter to the Society of Authors (SoA) said in April 20202 that they would offer more appropriate contracts, yet two months later their longstanding contracts were not renewed. Jolly and Adams had both been directly involved as members of the SoA, campaigning to be contracted as ‘workers’ and not ‘personal service providers’. They argue that this involvement factored into their unfair dismissal.

According to Jolly, “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.” However, frequently these writers are employed for years on precarious, fixed-term contracts. She claims that these “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.”

Their lawyer, Bradshaw, told The Guardian that “These are people who would ordinarily be perceived as white-collar, privileged workers – they’re highly educated, really respected authors and writers, and they’re being forced to accept terms and conditions that undermine their legal rights.”

Vice President of Oxford University and College Union (UCU), David Chivall, believes that the long-term impact of these insecure employment contracts are that “people’s lives become so unstable they are unable to do their jobs to as high a standard as they would have been able to do if they were employed fairly: in the end both teaching and research suffer.”

Over the course of February and March, the UCU have announced 18 days of strikes against these insecure contracts, pay, working conditions and pensions.

The claim was filed on 16 November 2022, with the university expected to respond in January and the resolution expected to be reached in the summer.

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