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Oxford’s diversity deficit

Recent strike action by university staff across the UK has once again highlighted concerns over the wages and working conditions in academia. Whilst this makes academia less viable as a career in general, it makes it especially difficult for those who come from less privileged backgrounds. This has led to what the Economist has coined Oxford’s ‘Other diversity crisis’: a lack of diversity within the staff. 

In comparison to other national universities, Oxford trails behind in various measures of diversity, including the level of women in professorship roles or the percentage of BME (black and minority ethnic) academics. Yet, when looking at the number of fixed-term contracts, 66% of Oxford’s academic staff are on such work agreements. The UK university average is 33%. The diversity problem may thus partly be rooted in the prevailing insecure contracts: job insecurity, low wages, and frequent (re)applications make it difficult for staff to persevere in academia, especially those who come from less privileged backgrounds. 

What types of contracts exist?

As the biggest employer in Oxfordshire, the central university alone accounts for almost 15,000 jobs. However, the colleges, which act independently, employ even more. This not only means that the number of fixed-term contracts may in fact be higher (as the 66% only includes data from the university itself) but also that there are various different positions, which come with different contracts. Oftentimes the contracts offered by colleges take these forms:

  • No salaried jobs (often graduate students)

These often pay between £230 and £350 for taking a normal-sized tutorial group for eight weeks, one academic told Cherwell. They come with no guarantee of future work. 

  • Non-stipendiary lectureships 

Non-stipendiary lectureships guarantee a certain amount of hours of teaching for the college. They come with an hourly wage and a small retainer, yet similarly, no guarantee of future work. 

  • Stipendiary lectureships 

These are usually one-year contracts with a yearly salary that require a certain amount of tutorial teaching, organising, and often interviewing for a college. Many of these positions are not full-time and lack job security. 

A Christ Church job posting for a two-year stipendiary lectureship in history, for example, offers a salary between £21,572 and £24,261, which falls below the UK’s 2022 median salary of £33,000. It requires “nine hours per week of high-quality tutorial teaching” and applicants should “have a doctorate, or one that will be substantially complete before the start date in History”, along with a research record that corresponds to their career stage. The appointment in turn entails “no expectation of permanent employment at Christ Church”. 

  • Career Development Fellowships (and similar) 

These positions are typically offered on a three-year basis and have a salary; academics are expected to do both teaching and research. This role is intended to be a stepping stone to more secure jobs for early-career academics. 

Effects of fixed-term contracts 

Fixed-term contracts lead to what is sometimes called the “casualisation” of work or the rise of a “gig economy” in academia. Hereby, employment shifts away from permanent, secure contracts to a more casual type of labour, which operates on fixed terms. This leads to frequent turnover in jobs, where those on fixed-term contracts need to regularly search for and adjust to new jobs, and it requires other staff to take on higher workloads to train them. Consequently, many academics may opt to leave academia; and many won’t even join in the first place. 

Orlando Lazar, a Career Development Fellow at St Edmund Hall, told Cherwell that “[l]ots and lots of teaching at Oxford is performed by people on these sorts of contracts, where there’s no security that they’ll have a job at the start of the next academic year, and low enough pay that you can’t realistically save for periods of underemployment or unemployment.” 

Usually, workers employed on fixed-term contracts by the same employer for four years automatically become permanently employed. However, since many Oxford academics get jobs at a different college after their contract expires, and each college counts as a different employer, this prevents them from becoming permanent.

“[P]eople aren’t just spending some time on insecure contracts as a step on the way to a secure job: they’re staying on those contracts for years and years, or dropping out of academia entirely. They’re propping up the entire system.”

The quality of teaching is also affected: “I know from experience that it’s much easier to do that work well when you don’t have to split your attention between the present, the impending end of your contract, and the level of your bank account.” Lazar’s current fellowship will be the first where he teaches the same students from matriculation to graduation. 

A UCU survey conducted across the UK found that too many mandated teaching hours can have further negative effects on research. To start, 71% of casualised teachers said they did not have enough paid time to give their students the feedback they deserved. As well, 81% of respondents said that their own research was negatively affected by short-term contracts and 96% of respondents agreed that genuinely innovative research would be advanced by more secure contracts. 

The study also found that 71% of respondents believed that their mental health had been damaged by being employed on fixed-term contracts; 43% claimed it even affected their physical health. 

Alongside this, Oxford is also an expensive city to live in – high housing prices and a lack of housing support from the university add to the strain academics face. A study by the job website Adzuna found that Oxford was the third most expensive city to live in, with 32% of income spent on rent. 

How this affects diversity

The ability to deal with financial and job security is often unequally distributed, making it harder for less privileged groups to enter and remain in academia. Many may not have the ability to accept low-paying jobs or accept the risks that come with this. Oxford University currently employs 4415 staff who are not from the United Kingdom, nearly a third of their whole academic workforce. Having to renew visas without the guarantee of a stable job or salary is an additional problem these non-UK nationals may face. 

Statistically, the level of academic BME staff in Oxford is also lower than across the UK: whilst it is 9% at Oxford, it has averaged at 20% nationwide. 12% of professors in the UK are also ethnic minorities – at Oxford, 6% of statutory professors and 8% of associate professors are BME. The university is targeting 9% and 11%, respectively, by 2029. 

According to Oxford Staffing Data, “BME applicants were furthermore less likely to be appointed than white applicants, with 16% of UK applicants of University-led academic posts being BME and only 9% being appointed over the past three years. This was similarly observed among research posts: 25% of applicants were BME, yet only 16% were appointed. Non-UK applicants also experienced disproportionately low rates of success.”  Overall, only 11 out of the 1952 permanent academic staff at Oxford are black. 

The proportion of women in professorship roles was similarly below the UK average: women constituted 28.5% of professorships nationwide, yet only made up 19% of statutory professorships (the most senior academic grade) in Oxford in 2020/21. Within medical sciences, social sciences, maths, physical and life sciences, and humanities, women made up 8.2%, 29.3%, 15.1%, and 31.4% of professorships, respectively. Oxford intends for 27% of professorship roles to be filled by women by 2029. 

Notably, more women and BME staff are on fixed-term contracts at Oxford: 74% of women were on fixed-term contracts compared to 61% of men. 83% of BME staff were on fixed-term contracts, which only applied to 61% of white staff. 

Tim Soutphommasane, Oxford’s newly appointed Chief Diversity Officer also told Cherwell that “[t]here are areas of representation where Oxford is starting from a lower base than other UK universities. At the same time, there are areas where Oxford’s diversity is perhaps higher than what some might expect: for example, 23 percent of Oxford’s research staff identify as BME.”

What is Oxford doing?

Dr Soutphommasane also told Cherwell: “In my first three months here, we’ve funded our staff networks for BME staff, LGBT+ staff, and staff with disabilities. We’ve announced an EDI studentship to enable undergraduates and graduates interested in EDI research or project to have a placement with our Equality and Diversity Unit. We’re creating new forums to share knowledge and experiences on EDI.”

Future work will include the implementation of the University’s Race Equality Strategy, which was finalised last year.” Amongst other measures, this intends to close the Ethnicity Pay Gap, establish representative and inclusive decision-making and governance structures, tackle bullying and harassment, and increase the proportions of senior BME staff. The university has also published guidelines on inclusive recruitment, which encourages departments to take positive action by supporting under-represented applicants through targeted training, mentoring, and encouragement. However, final decisions are made on the basis of merit. 

“This does involve culture change, and making progress does demand sustained efforts. It also requires an understanding that work on this is integral to our success as a global institution.”

Professor Irene Tracey, Oxford’s Vice Chancellor, previously announced an independent inquiry into the pay and working conditions for all University staff, which will also look into fixed-term contracts. The time frame for this is unclear.

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