The Billionaire University has been found guilty of exploiting its staff at an Employment Tribunal.

Rebecca Abrams and Alice Jolly taught Creative Writing at Oxford University for 15 years. They were employed on fixed-term “personal services” contracts. At an employment tribunal this week, a judge ruled that these contracts were a sham. Abrams and Jolly should have been engaged on fixed-term contracts of employment and should have been treated as employées.

Rebecca Abrams and Alice Jolly are real heroes. It is a nerve-wracking business taking on litigatious billionaires — whether they are Donald Trump, Jeffrey Epstein or the University of Oxford. There is always a risk in any legal action. The process is mentally draining, painful, costly and upsetting.

The ramifications of this verdict will help others working under exploitative conditions in UK Universities. However, our concern here — as in our previous posting on the case of the parents of Natasha Abrahart versus Bristol University — is: what does this tell us about the mindset of UK University senior management? 

The decision to pursue litigation was hypocritical. Oxford University’s website claims — just like the squeaking Paula Vennells — that they genuinely care about their staff. It says: “People are the foundation of the University’s success and the quality of our academic, research, professional and support staff is critical to our future. In order for Oxford to remain a world-leading institution for research and teaching we must continue to attract, recruit and support talented individuals and provide a diverse, inclusive, fair and open environment that allows staff to grow and flourish.” However, paying writers roughly £23 an hour is not creating a “fair and open environment that allows staff to grow and flourish

Even worse, Oxford University commissioned a report from external consultants. They warned that the contracts were a sham and that the University ran the risk of ‘reputational damage’. It is not a good look for billionaires to be trumpeting about how wonderfully they look after their staff, while simultaneously exploiting them with penurious and unfair contracts, and then suing them.

Oxford University knew they didn’t have a strong argument, yet they then spent four years vindictively pursuing an Employment Tribunal case, which — predictably enough — they lost. And worst of all, Oxford University said it would offer suitable contracts in a letter to the Society of Authors in April 2022. Two months later, the contracts of Abrams and Jolly were not renewed. They suffered the usual fate of troublesome whistleblowers in Universities. They were sacked.

Senior management in Universities like Oxford is unaccountable. It is not their own money that senior managers use to pursue these legal actions. It is public money, it is donor’s money, that is being scandalously wasted. Despite universities saying that times are hard, there always seems to be ample money to waste on vast legal gangs of solicitors and barristers.

There are grave issues with access to justice. Compared to an individual, any university is wealthy. The Billionaire University is very wealthy indeed. Senior management use this wealth to subdue critics and victims into silence. If you ask an awkward question or stand up against an injustice at a University, then you get threatening letters from the University lawyers. If you pursue matters publicly, then you may be investigated yourself or dismissed for “bringing the University into disrepute”. This is institutional bullying, carried out at immense human cost and with complete disregard for the values of a University.

The registrar at Oxford University is the most senior administrator. She must have sanctioned this wasteful and mean-spirited legal action. However, the registrar has not apologised for the persistent injustice meted out by her staff, far less resigned. Like many in senior positions in UK university administration, the registrar is a former lawyer. It shows.

Just as it is wrong for a University to be fighting grieving parents in law courts (the Abraharts versus Bristol University), so it is wrong for a University to be suing its own long-serving and dedicated staff who merely have asked for a proper employment contract.

University staff need protection from their own senior management. The UK Universities are a Post Office Scandal waiting to happen.

Categories: Blog

1 Comment

Anon · 21 March 2024 at 02:54

It’s never the university, its administration, the perpetrators in academia, or the senior management that protects and enables perpetrators, to bring the university into disrepute through their own actions, inaction, or negligence, is it?

Because, of course, as we are always reminded, those responsible for tarnishing its reputation and “bringing the university into disrepute” are always the whistleblowers, the staff who challenge sham contracts and exploitative practices, women suffering sexual harassment, targets of mobbing within the academy, or parents in a lawsuit mourning the loss of a child due to suicide resulting from mobbing or negligence.

When you take a simple complaint of misconduct to these monolithic institutions that are apparently above even the law and deal with the years of mobbing, the Kafkaesque gaslighting, the Orwellian bureaucratic labyrinths meant to wear you down, the surveillance, the ostracism, the smear campaigns designed to dehumanize you, the blacklisting in professional networks of your field, the endless BS propaganda designed to deflect any criticism, you get the distinct feeling that this is what it must have felt to have been a dissident in the former GDR or Soviet Union.

Actually, I often wonder if higher education in the UK is a bit like the USSR circa 1987 and whether all of the empty platitudes of EDI (of which they honor none and continue to damage people ) merely represent a perestroika moment before the entire bloated and rotten system collapses.

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