Oxford tutors win right to be treated as employees

Two University of Oxford tutors who have been kept on “personal services” contracts for 15 years should have been regarded as employees, a tribunal has ruled.

Authors Rebecca Abrams and Alice Jolly have taught on the university’s creative writing master’s since 2007 and argued that they were denied important workplace rights, comparing their conditions to those found in the “gig economy”.

At a preliminary hearing at the Reading Employment Tribunal last month they claimed that the terms of their contracts stipulated they had to provide work on particular days and to particular deadlines set by the university, as well as comply with procedures regarding conflicts of interest, confidentiality and copyright ownership.

Courses were marketed using the authors’ biographies and they were referred to as “members of staff” on an admissions website.

The authors’ lawyer Ryan Bradshaw, of the law firm Leigh Day, argued that these terms and conditions meant their status at the university was “clearly that of employees and not as personal service providers or workers”.

In a ruling, the judge said there was a “lens of inequality” in the relationship between the university and its tutors, which had the effect of creating an “obligation for the claimants to undertake the clearly defined work offered by the respondent”.

The judgment added that the tutors were not guest lecturers or speakers and had been presented as full members of staff in the student handbook. The judge ruled that the authors were engaged on fixed-term contracts of employment and should be classed as employees.

Ms Abrams and Ms Jolly further argue that they saw their work reduced after raising concerns about the university’s employment practices; that they had therefore been subject to detriment for trade union activity and whistleblowing and had been unfairly dismissed.

Future hearings will be held to determine the outcome of these claims.

Ms Abrams said the ruling on employment status was a “vindication of everything we’ve been fighting for since 2018”. 

“Alice and I are skilled professionals teaching at one of the world’s top universities, yet we’ve been employed year after year on sham contracts that have denied us our employment rights and legal protections,” she added.

She said Oxford was “one of the worst offenders”, with 70 per cent of its teaching staff on precarious contracts, and she hoped the ruling “will encourage an urgently needed reboot in the way universities treat the teachers on whom they rely”.

Ms Jolly said their case was “not about our personal circumstances” but about the “future of higher education and the status of writers who teach in universities”.

David Graham, the co-founder of Law for Change, which has supported the authors’ legal action, said: the “positive outcome for the claimants will not only secure better contract rights for lecturers at Oxford University but also help others working under exploitative contracts across the academic community”.

An Oxford spokesperson said: “We have been notified of the tribunal’s ruling on this preliminary hearing and are currently reviewing it.”


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