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Short-term contracts put Oxford University staff at risk of poverty

An employment tribunal will be convened in Reading this January to look into problems associated with short-term and casual employment contracts at Oxford University, identified by the UCU (University and College Union) as significant causes of poverty.

The tribunal has been organised in light of a survey conducted in Trinity term of 2023 by the UCU, which later led to an October 2023 report written by the UCU in conjunction with academic staff currently working within the university.  

The report drew attention to the prevalence of poverty among Oxford University’s academic staff employed either by colleges or by the OUDCE (Oxford University Department for Continuing Education) – in the report, hundreds were said to be affected. This high risk of poverty is both caused and compounded by the fact that staff find themselves in a precarious ongoing cycle of short-term job contracts which, for some, has reportedly lasted for decades. 44.9% of those surveyed reported feeling “very bad” about their job security.

The report found that those paid by the hour often have an overall pay which amounts to less than the National Minimum Wage, while those who have a set wage tend to be on “casual” short-term contracts with an income 60% less than the average UK annual household income.

The UCU laid out their aim in writing the report: “First… to raise awareness in Oxford… for the staff employed by the Collegiate University, it specifically aims to produce useful knowledge for local campaigns. Secondly… [the report] is intended for Senior Management at the University and its constituent Colleges.”

A spokesperson for the UCU has stated that, though the subject of the report is largely a systemic issue, employers still have the power to make change.

Oxford academics Rebecca Abrams and Alice Jolly spoke out about the “inappropriate precarious casual contracts for teaching staff” almost a year ago. They have since spoken at the Watford employment tribunal on 16 November 2023. Their complaints will continue to be addressed at the tribunal taking place in January.

The report also refers to the unmanageable workloads faced by academic staff who occupy casualised roles and must juggle multiple roles which “together amount to far more than full-time equivalent hours.” Women, who, according to the survey, are more likely to occupy casual roles, are particularly impacted.

The lack of longer-term contracts helps uphold a lack of diversity at the University, according to the UCU.

An Oxford student told Cherwell: “It is shameful to see reports of these contracts employees are made to suffer. Being a student at this world class institution I want to feel pride in my time here but instead I feel disgusted at how the university treats its staff. Demands for fair working conditions and pay are nothing more than reasonable and I hope the University takes a New Year’s resolution to guarantee this.”

In light of the information released in the Union’s report, a spokesperson for Oxford University has said that the OUDCE is currently in the process of reforming its structure following an external review. Changes to the employment structure of the OUDCE are set to be implemented in the academic year of 2024-2025.

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