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.”

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