Oxford Uni Bridge of Sighs

Oxford University Tutors Not Self-Employed

Two Oxford University tutors, Rebecca Abrams and Alice Jolly, win their claim for employee status in an Employment Tribunal, prompting calls for a re-evaluation of employment practices in higher education.

15 years of frontline service
Rebecca and Alice, each with over 15 years of teaching experience in the Masters in Creative Writing programme at the University of Oxford, had been engaged on personal service contracts, meaning that they were self-employed.  However, they contended that the terms of their contracts warranted recognition as employees, arguing that the current arrangement denied them crucial workplace rights.

Contractual stipulations 

The terms of the personal service contracts required the tutors to work on particular days and to particular deadlines set by the university.  In addition the tutors had to comply with University procedures regarding conflicts of interest, confidentiality and copyright ownership.  All of these point towards a lack of control in how the tutors do their work, suggesting they are more akin to employees/workers than self-employed.

In addition, the University marketed the courses on which Rebecca and Alice tutored using their author biographies, and they were referred to as “members of staff” on an admissions website.

Tribunal conclusions

The tribunal hearing took place in January and ruled that Rebecca and Alice should be employees engaged in fixed term contracts, finding that they were not guest lecturers, and had been presented as full members of staff in the student handbook.  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”.

A wider rethink needed?

There are suggestions that this case is not unique to Oxford University, and that a wider rethink is needed in the further education sector.  The claimants say that Oxford is “one of the worst offenders” with 70% of it’s teaching staff allegedly on precarious contracts.  The case has prompted calls for all higher education institutions to review how they treat precariously employed staff.

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