The Academic Gig Economy

by | January 22, 2021

It isn’t obvious that Uber drivers and other ‘gig economy’ workers have much in common with Oxford dons. The gig economy business model is simple yet exploitative: companies like Uber extract the maximum labour while offering the minimum employment rights in return – something they manage via a legal sleight of hand which lets them classify their workers as ‘self-employed contractors’ rather than ‘direct employees’. Gig economy work is often poorly paid and usually offers few career prospects; it is also highly precarious, as companies have used zero-hours and other short-term contracts to create a ‘flexible workforce’ they can dismiss with relative ease.

Meanwhile, far from this precarity, Oxford dons spend their lives teaching, researching and dining in luxury at one of the world’s most prestigious universities – or so we tend to imagine. The reality has become rather different, as in recent years Oxford and other universities have brought the gig economy business model to academia. One report, by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, estimates that as many as half the academics working at UK universities do not have permanent employment contracts – and this is a conservative estimate. Many academics are on exploitative contracts not so different to the ones used by Uber and other gig economy firms.

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents staff at UK universities, has for years campaigned against these casual contracts and what it calls the ‘casualisation’ of academia. The anti-casualisation campaign continues to grow, with groups like #CoronaContract  highlighting the way that non-permanent academic staff have often been made to bear the brunt of universities’ cost-cutting measures, following the economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. Nevertheless, the most recent national figures show that casualisation is not getting better, and that things are even worse at Oxford than at national level. The latest data shows that 67 per cent of all academic staff at Oxford are on fixed-term contracts, compared to around 33 per cent nationally.

Fixed-term contracts are one of most common types of casual contract at Oxford. They are mostly ‘research-only’, meaning they are used by departments to hire academics to work for a limited period of time on specific research projects. They are full time and salaried, but their duration varies enormously: they might last three years, they might last nine months or even less. A freedom of information request has shown that 93 per cent of research-only contracts at Oxford are fixed-term, compared to 66 per cent nationally.

Another common type of casual contract is ‘atypical’ contracts. These are mostly used by colleges and are ‘teaching-only’. They are usually ‘fractional’ (part time), very short term, and pay by the hour; an atypical contract will be used, say, to hire a young academic or a doctoral student to teach a few tutorials per week for several weeks. At Oxford just over 3,500 academics – one third of all academic staff – are on atypical contracts. Most of these academics are not classified as employees. According to the standard central university contract, an atypical worker has no entitlement to training or access to the University maternity/paternity scheme, and their hours of work can be varied at the university’s discretion.

Because these teaching contracts often pay only for the time teachers actually spend with students, a lot of staff are effectively giving away much of their labour for free; a tutor is paid for an hour-long tutorial, for instance, but not for the time spent in preparation, replying to students’ emails and marking their essays. In one UCU national survey, three quarters of the respondents who were on casual teaching contracts said they regularly work beyond their contracted hours, meaning that in reality just under half the time they spend on teaching is unpaid.

This shatters one of Oxford’s justifications for fractional contracts, which is that teachers, should they want to earn more, are free to take several part-time contracts and create a full-time role. In reality this is hardly possible, says Tom White, postdoctoral researcher at the English faculty and anti-casualisation office at Oxford’s UCU branch. ‘A lot of the narratives around these fractional and casualised roles rely on the myth that people are piecing together these jobs into a full-time role’, he says, ‘but when you factor in teaching preparation and marking and pastoral care, that 0.5 role will actually add up to 0.7 or 0.8. In reality people are just living on very little money in a very expensive city.’

A natural consequence of low pay is that it impedes efforts to diversify academia. Because the disadvantaged are less likely to be able to afford to take poorly remunerated contracts, casualisation works as a filter tending to only let through the socio-economically advantaged – which might go some way to explaining, for instance, why Oxford only has seven Black professors, and why 77 per cent of its academic staff are white.

Another of the myths Oxford uses to justify casualisation is the claim that casual contracts are only a step on the way to a permanent position: these contracts, so the myth goes, are the opportunity for early-career academics to get the teaching and research experience that will quickly build their CVs and land them something permanent. But in fact many academics are stuck in a vicious circle of short-term contracts. James Robson, lecturer at Oxford’s Department of Education, says it is increasingly the case that, ‘you either come to the end of your fixed-term contract and leave the university, or you struggle to get another fixed-term contract and you’re stuck at the same level – there’s not really any built in career progression.’ Data obtained by The Isis bears this out: of all staff at Oxford with at least four years’ service, around 40 per cent are on fixed-term contracts. On average these staff have worked at the university for eight years – despite the fact that fixed-term workers have a legal right to be considered for permanency after four.

Indeed, the paradox of casual contracts is that they make it inherently difficult for staff to find a permanent position; so much time has to be spent worrying about securing the next contract, it can be impossible for academics to fully concentrate on the research and teaching that is supposed to help them progress. In another UCU survey one third of fixed-term academics said that at least a quarter of their time is spent on searching for and applying to their next position. In the very worst cases, academics must start looking for the next contract the moment they begin the present one. Someone at Oxford with direct experience of this is Anderson Ryan, Associate Professor at the Oncology department, who manages teams of fixed-term researchers. He says that, whereas three-year contracts were once the norm, two- and even one-year contracts have become worryingly common: ‘on a two-year contract you begin to look for your next position within a year, and on a one-year contract you’re essentially looking straight away … it’s a highly precarious and risky way of progressing a career.’

Unsurprisingly, all of this means that academics on casual contracts are highly likely to find their job stressful. In another UCU survey, 71 per cent of respondents said their mental health had been affected by the stress and insecurity of working on casualised contracts. Oxford might argue that its own record is better than this – its 2018 staff experience survey reports that just one in ten respondents experienced an episode of mental ill-health in the previous twelve months – but the university’s ‘Mindful Employer Action Plan’ says that mental health issues are currently underreported. The plan also admitted that casual staff, such as those coming to the end of fixed-term contracts but hoping for renewal, may be reluctant to report ill-health to their line managers. In any case, because Oxford doesn’t collect data on specific contract types, the full extent of the links between casualisation and mental ill-health remain hidden.

And herein lies one of the difficulties for the anti-casualisation campaign: universities are not actually obliged to provide anything but the most general data about the contracts their staff are on. In the past Oxford has failed to provide any data at all about its atypical staff; and two of the largest Oxford colleges, Christ Church and Balliol, responded to The Isis’s freedom of information requests by saying they hold no data on staff contracts of any kind. Even where the data technically does exist, Oxford’s college system works to obfuscate it. An academic might have a research contract with a department as well as several part-time teaching contracts across multiple colleges, and there is no single institution keeping a record of the fact. The result is that an ‘invisible workforce’ has been left to develop, as James Robson puts it: ‘nobody really knows who they are or what they do.’

Oxford and other universities claim they are addressing casualisation, but their commitment to doing so is questionable. They like to point out that the nationwide proportion of academics on casual contracts is declining, but in fact the current rate of change is so glacial it would take 500 years for the proportion of teachers on casual contracts to fall below five percent. Oxford’s ‘Strategic Action Plan 2018-23’ includes a commitment to ‘review and improve our current arrangements to support the personal and career development of all staff’, but there is no specific reference to casual contracts. So far there has been no progress: between 2018 and 2019 the proportion of academic staff on fixed term contract remained unchanged, at 49 per cent (compared to 42 per cent in 2013).

Some staff feel the university simply has no interest in addressing casualisation. Oxford says that a permanent position is merited where the work being done is ‘essential to the future plans of the department’, but the university always finds a way to claim that casual roles fail to meet the criteria, says Tom White. ‘It’s clear in a lot of cases that there is a permanent need for the work to be done but that the university resists translating that into a permanent job … precisely so that universities have more power over their workers.’ In his view the university has a clear interest in keeping a supply of workers ‘on relatively low wages, who are disposable at very short notice.’

The further difficulty for the anti-casualisation campaign is that academics are often afraid to speak out, for fear of further damaging their already shaky career prospects. Marina Lambrakis, former anti-casualisation officer at Oxford UCU, says, ‘Oxford’s attitude is that if you don’t take the contract then somebody else will, so you should accept terrible terms and conditions and very low pay, because they are doing you a favour … and if you start to push for particular demands for workers then basically we [Oxford] will stop hiring them.’

Nevertheless, the campaign is getting results. Earlier this year the Russell Group, made up of twenty four of the UK’s leading universities, met to discuss the ‘reputational damage’ casual contracts are causing and decided they need to show an ‘openness’ to the issue. Similarly, the UCU got the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, which represents universities in industrial disputes, to advise its members to review their employment practices, and to remind them that indefinite contracts should be the ‘general form of employment relationship between employers and employees’. If these seem like small victories, they are significant in light of the fact that universities had previously barely recognised the existence of casualisation.

It is not inconceivable that casual contracts might in some circumstances be mutually beneficial. James Robson is highly critical of casualisation, but says he does not necessarily see a problem, for instance, with doctoral students doing casual work. ‘A lot of doctoral students need the money and want the experience, and so having a system that enables this, and which makes it possible for academic staff to get help with work, can be beneficial to everybody,’ he says.

Maybe so, but it is difficult to draw the line between mutually beneficial work and exploitation. Marina Lambrakis thinks that casualisation has become so embedded that, ‘the culture is that you should be grateful for the opportunity because its building your CV, so people just accept it for the way that higher education is. People do get very exploited, but they don’t really think of themselves as being exploited.’ It is easy to take advantage of academics’ goodwill, and too easy for work to cross the blurry line into exploitation.

Gig economy companies like Uber – and now universities like Oxford – have made a business model out of crossing this line. But the gig economy remains much more closely associated with Uber drivers on zero-hours contracts than with researchers and teachers at higher education institutions, especially ones with the money and prestige of Oxford. The hope is that this will change as recognition and awareness increases – among universities, students and the general public, and even among academics themselves – of the increasingly exploitative nature of academic work. Exploitation is exploitation, after all, whether or not it takes place in Grade II listed buildings and wood-panelled dining halls.∎


Words by Ben O’Brien. Art by Joe Dobbyn.