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Academics win claim against Oxford University over ‘sham contracts’

<span>Oxford University, where Rebecca Abrams claims nearly 70% of teaching staff are on precarious contracts.</span><span>Photograph: William Conran/PA</span>
Oxford University, where Rebecca Abrams claims nearly 70% of teaching staff are on precarious contracts.Photograph: William Conran/PA

Two academics who sued Oxford University for employing them on “sham contracts” as gig economy workers, have won their claim for employee status in a ruling that could have implications for other higher education workers on precarious contracts.

Rebecca Abrams and Alice Jolly, both respected authors, taught on Oxford’s prestigious creative writing course for 15 years, but were employed on fixed-term “personal services” contracts, which they claimed denied them important workplace rights.

After an employment tribunal hearing last month, the judge found in their favour, ruling that they were engaged on fixed-term contracts of employment and should therefore be classed as employees. Lawyers said a hearing would be held to assess the implications of the ruling.

Abrams welcomed the judgment and said she hoped it would prompt “an urgently needed reboot” in the way universities treat teachers. “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.

“With nearly 70% of its teaching staff on precarious contracts, Oxford is one of the worst offenders, but this is an issue that extends across UK higher education. Casualisation is a race to the bottom – bad for teachers, bad for students, and bad for universities.”

Abrams and Jolly had long argued their contracts were sham. According to their lawyers, Oxford said it would offer more appropriate contracts in a letter to the Society of Authors in April 2022. Two months later their contracts were not renewed.

“Both will seek a judgment that the failure to renew these contracts was an act of victimisation as result of their whistleblowing and trade union activity,” said a statement from Leigh Day solicitors, who represented the pair.

The University and College Union, which represents lecturers and other university staff, has campaigned on the issue of casualisation in higher education, taking extensive industrial action in recent years over insecure contracts, as well as pay and conditions.

“I simply cannot understand why the university has spent four years (at huge cost) trying to silence me and Rebecca when they knew all along that the contracts are a sham,” said Jolly. “This legal action is not about our personal circumstances. It is about the future of higher education and also about the status of writers who teach in universities.”

David Graham, co-founder of the litigation fund Law for Change, which supported the pair, said: “Our mission is to back legal actions that have a clear social benefit and the continuing erosion of lecturers’ employment rights in higher education institutions is an area Law for Change is particularly concerned about.

“This 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.”

Ryan Bradshaw, a solicitor with Leigh Day, added: “This is an important case that highlights the need for higher education providers to review and rethink their treatment of precariously employed staff. It is not acceptable for these institutions to continue to seek to avoid their legal obligations. The gig economy has no place in our universities.”

In a separate dispute, a group claim brought by students against University College London, alleging breach of contract after Covid and industrial action disrupted their studies, is to proceed to court after talks aimed at finding a settlement ended without agreement last month.

A judge halted proceedings last July to allow more time for talks between the two sides but there has been no progress, so both sides have mutually agreed to lift the stay on high court proceedings. Meanwhile, thousands more claimants have joined the action, taking the total to around 5,000, according to lawyers.

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

UCU general secretary Jo Grady added: “This is a huge win in the fight against gig economy working practices in higher education. Despite being one of the richest institutions in the world, the University of Oxford keeps thousands of academics on low-paid insecure contracts that leave staff impoverished.

“It’s completely unacceptable and it has to stop. This victory shows these contracts are often a sham and staff on them are entitled to the benefits of secure employment. Every employer in the sector now needs to pay attention to this ruling and begin working with UCU to move their employees onto secure contracts.”