Two creative heavyweights are fighting 'Oxford University’s Uberisation'

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Busy freelancers may not have noticed, but two creative writing lecturers at Oxford University have brought a claim against the university on the basis of their employment status, writes Rebecca Seeley Harris of ReLegal Consulting.

The lecturers, Alice Jolly and Rebecca Abrams, believe that they have been misclassified and are, they therefore allege, missing out on various fundamental employment rights.

The problem is that, despite being highly educated and well-respected, the lecturers believe they were being forced to accept terms that undermine their legal rights.

'We were really employees all along'

The lecturers were engaged on fixed-term ‘personal service’ contracts with a ‘zero hours’ commitment, but say that they should have been employees all along.

Depending on the type of contract, a zero-hours contract worker should be entitled to at least the National Minimum Wage and paid annual leave. So, it appears that these terms are treating the lecturers as self-employed rather than as a zero-hours worker.

The two lecturers have been campaigning with their union for their and others’ rights since May 2018, saying that the University of Oxford lecturers should be engaged at least as ‘workers’ not ‘personal service providers’.

'Legally-questionable casual contracts'

Despite the university claiming that they would change the type of engagement, neither lecturers contracts were renewed in 2022 despite having worked there for 15 years.

Creative writing lecturer Abrams said: “We are bringing this action on behalf of hundreds of Oxford University tutors who, like us, are employed on legally questionable casual contracts.

“Oxford is one of the worst offenders when it comes to the uberisation of higher education teaching, with nearly 70 per cent of its staff on precarious contracts. This is bad for teachers and bad for students. It is simply inexcusable that the University is failing, as we believe it is, in its fundamental legal obligations to the very people on whom its world-wide reputation for academic excellence relies."

Burden of proof on the two creatives

However the lecturers will need to prove that they are employees rather than workers, to be able to claim unfair dismissal and being subject to a detriment for trade union activity.

Their case will be based on similar arguments that were used in Uber in the 2021 ruling in the Supreme Court.

This judgment -- which Abrams refers to in her comments above -- changed the way that Uber engaged with their drivers. It was a watershed moment for the gig economy. It was also a defence used in a similar case against Goldsmith University which, like the Uber case, also found in the taxpayer’s favour.

Uber called, but not all platforms answered

Casting my mind back, I remember it was hoped that the Uber judgment would pave the way for a radical change in the whole of the gig economy. Following the judgment, Uber did call for the platform industry to follow suit and some did – but unfortunately for ‘workers,’ that follwing suit has not been widespread.

Interestingly, and ironically, Oxford Law professor Jeremias Adams-Prassl wrote a book on the subject in 2019.

'Humans as a Service...'

The book, entitled ‘Humans as a Service...’ discusses the promises and perils of work in the gig economy.

A four-out-of-five-stars rating on Amazon, the book considers the variety of approaches and business models used by engagers, and how these constantly evolve to meet new market-demands and regulatory challenges.

The gig economy is often associated with platform-based providers such as Deliveroo and Uber, where the bottom line is known to be of paramount importance. So, it seems shocking -- or at the least very unexpected -- that a prestigious, not-for-profit education institution like Oxford University is allegedly engaging in these practices. Reportedly however, nearly 70% of the university’s staff are on precarious contracts.

Let's hope for a response but crucially, a resolution

Filed in November 2022, the claim against the university was due to result in a response by the institution last month (January 2023), but as we now approach the third week of February 2023, that response is still outstanding.

Hopefully for all parties, including the onlooking self-employed, there will be a resolution to this case.

At the very least though, if the lecturers are successful, they and other academics like them -- whether they teach creative writing or not as both Abrams and Jolly did, should be able to claim backdated holiday pay, and be entitled to more secure terms.

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