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Oxford UCU Early Career Staff Survey 2016
About the Survey:
In early 2016 the UCU Oxford branch Early Career Network (ECN) ran a survey to find out whether Oxford early career staff felt that they are being paid fairly for the work that they do. The survey ran for 3 months and was open to both UCU members and non-members. It was specifically catered to Oxford staff, and was administered by Giulia Liberatore, Peter Hill, and Anna Duncan (UCU committee members).
The survey was divided into 5 different sections:
Section A collected general information on contract type, number of contracts held in Higher Education, and qualifications. Section B included questions for staff on Fixed Term only, Section C contained questions for staff on casual contracts and Section D for those on permanent contracts. In this report, casual contracts are understood as any contract not falling within the ‘fixed-term’ or ‘permanent’ categories, for example, teaching contracts (where they may indeed be no written contract) that are distributed on a termly or yearly basis. Similar questions were asked in each of these sections (B-D) and included: length of contract, whether it was full-time or part-time, scale of pay, teaching hours stated on contract vs. actual teaching hours, non-contact teaching hours that are unpaid, subjective assessment of workload, transparency of teaching allocation. Section E of the survey collected information on availability of training and support, and offered respondents a place to write any general comments on their work experience at Oxford. Some text comments presented have been edited for small grammatical errors and to ensure respondents were not identifiable.
General information about the respondents
· Overall the survey had 114 respondents of which 66 were ‘researchers’, 17 ‘lecturers’, 10 ‘researchers and tutors’, 7 ‘researchers and lecturers’ (other categories included academic, related, teaching assistant, research assistant, tutor).
· 108 respondents were on fixed term contracts, 25 were on one or more casual contracts (22 of which also had fixed-term contracts) and 6 were on permanent contracts (2 of which also had fixed-term contracts).
· Of those on fixed term contracts, 39% were on a contract of 2.5-3.5 years, 47% on a contract of 0-2.5 years.
Precarious work: casual and Fixed-term contracts
· According to data held by the Higher Education Statistics Agency above 70% of research and academic staff at Oxford are on insecure (fixed-term or ‘atypical’) contracts. The findings from this survey suggest that employees often remain on successive fixed-term contracts for an extended period of time. Ten respondents, who completed their doctoral studies 10 or more years previously, have held 5 or more fixed-term or casual contracts in Higher Education since completion and 2 have held 10 or 11 contracts. Seven respondents who have held a PhD for over 10 years are on fixed term contracts of 3 years or less.
· The following quotation describes how staff on continuous fixed term contracts are often expected to perform relatively senior tasks in their departments, despite being treated as junior members of staff:
To put it another way, Oxford does well, partly because there is a cadre of experienced, talented postdocs who have been here at least five years and effectively carry a lot of the load in these larger labs (mentoring, supervising, running meeting, attending conferences on behalf of the PI) yet they are not recognised - they are "just" postdocs on a succession of fixed-term contracts.
· Early career staff often find themselves having to combine multiple contracts in order to make ends meet:
I have been on fixed term contracts and an outside tutor for a number of colleges since 2011, and have been fortunate enough to either combine a number of fixed-term teaching contracts or a teaching contract with a research contract or administrative work in order to provide a manageable income.
· As illustrated by the following quotes, respondents on precarious contracts feel vulnerable, undervalued, and easily disposable:
Oxford does not have a tenure track system, there is no institutional memory, and a lot of the non-permanent staff feel entirely dispensable - regardless of how many years you've worked here and whether you've helped build up successful research centres and degrees you can be kicked out at any time.
It's appalling that this place thinks that its brand will be enough for researchers to move on. It isn't. It is exploiting people, paying them poorly and on precarious contracts to drive the research engine of this university. I've not met any happy post-docs. We're all just waiting and hoping for the chance to jump ship. It's unfair that fixed term contracts are not paid based on experience, unlike permanent jobs. The whole thing is rotten and I would not recommend to anyone to come to Oxford to work as a post doc or on any fixed term contract. It's awful.
Temporary contracts ruin careers and lives. That's a more general fact about academia in the UK today, but it's true to say that it affects me and my family every single day while I'm working at Oxford.
It amazes me that the University has so many staff on temporary contracts and we are overloaded (as are staff on permanent contracts), but we are in too vulnerable a position to turn down work when asked.
· Even those who feel they are paid fairly for their work are concerned with the precarity of their job status:
For what I do, I think I'm paid pretty well (80th percentile for UK salary, to do something I love with pretty flexible working conditions). The main downside is the job security (in the sense of the % of people who start doing this kind of job and get to do it long-term), which is pretty low.
Early Career Staff are poorly paid
Pay vs. Living costs
· Over two thirds (68%) of the respondents on fixed term contracts stated that they work more than what they are paid for. Of those in full-time employment, many did not know exactly how long they worked but of those who did know, the largest proportion (17%) stated that they worked between 40-44 hours per week. At least 19% of staff are working more than 48 hours per week, i.e. above the legal maximum working number of hours per week. A number of respondents (9%) reported working more than 55 hours per week.
· Many respondents on fixed-term contracts feel that they were not paid enough to afford living costs in Oxford. This was particularly the case for non-EU staff as illustrated by the following quotations:
As a PDRA, the rate of pay is far too low compared to the cost of living in Oxford. This is my second post-doctoral position, and I have essentially lost money since taking this position. Between moving here on my own money, and having to pay for rent and utilities for myself and my wife, I end up losing more money each month than I take in, and this is not for budgeting concerns. It is unrealistic for a person in the early stages of their career to have less money than they did as a student. Something must be done to address this, as foreign-born PhDs will not be willing to come to the University for work if this trend continues. This is worsened by the new requirements that foreign-born, non-EU citizens must now also pay NHS fees upon application for their visas, as well as pay for the NHS in their taxes. In addition to increasing pay for PDRAs and other such workers, more explicit details should be shown as to the true cost of living in Oxford prior to their signing of any contracts. Currently, all of this information greatly underestimates the true cost of living.
Increasingly a post-doctoral salary is not sufficient to afford life in Oxford, particularly without college affiliation or when on short-term fixed contracts (<12 months) in which case letting agencies do not consider you.
My problem is the payment. I currently cannot afford to rent my own flat, but only a room that is of very bad quality. I find this situation far from ideal, even though I do enjoy the actual work that I am doing.
The pay in relation to Oxford living expenses is poor.
Overall the experience is good. Although the pay doesn't cover the actual work that is done. Also there should be an Oxford allowance given the high accommodation prices.
Oxford, it makes saving to buy a house etc. next to impossible.
· Low pay is adversely affecting staff’s ability to manage familial responsibilities, and in some cases is pushing early career staff to move abroad:
In my opinion, the salary for a postdoc in Oxford is a bit low relative to the living cost in Oxford and the lack of stability in academia. To me, in most of the cases it feels extremely difficult to make family life compatible with an academic research career.
Oxford pays staff like post docs very low when the living cost is very high. I personally regret that I accepted the offer after arriving and seeing the living cost in Oxford. I see a simple engineer with BS has higher salary than a [..] post doc; that is a big shame and in first chance I will go back to the US.
· Early career staff on research contracts are often required to do unpaid teaching or administrative work outside of their contractual duties. Some of this work does not necessarily enhance their CVs or skill sets:
As an ECR who doesn't have a teaching stint built into my contract, I don't get paid for lecturing. In terms of work allocation, we tend to get the work that other people don't want to do, rather than having a say in what teaching we would like to do; for example, I haven't had the opportunity to teach on the course closest to my research because permanent faculty use it to fulfil their teaching stints.
it is also very clear that this university is exploitative of early career people (I imagine all universities are) and that they tend to get dumped with jobs that nobody else can be bothered to do that take up a lot of time and do not necessarily help their CVs because they often don't allow the ECRs to enhance their skill sets. I'm a firm believer that all departments should have some way of keeping track of how much admin/examining, etc. is done.
Administration assumes that if my research contract allows teaching, that teaching should not be paid. But since it is not a requirement of the contract, but something I do extra, I believe it should be remunerated work.
· Early career staff feel pressured into taking up this teaching which might not necessarily be beneficial to their career development:
I have at times found it very difficult to turn down teaching when I have been asked, and wonder if this is a particular pressure junior academics feel (although I have been given advice by senior colleagues to say no, in order to safeguard research time, so it is not a pressure explicitly exerted from above, but certainly felt from below).
· Teaching contracts do not pay for preparation, and non-contact administrative work, which accounts for a large percentage of their workload. Of those on fixed term contracts, 54% stated that their non-contact hours of teaching were unpaid.
· This predicament is worse still for those with casual contracts; when those on fixed-term contracts and/or casual contracts are considered together, 60% report carrying out unpaid work.
I think the pay scale for Stipendiary Lecturers should be more reflective of the non-contact teaching hours we do. Admissions takes up huge amounts of time, and while I enjoy being involved I should be paid for those additional hours. Perhaps there should be some sort of additional allowance paid to those of us on temporary contracts if we're asked to be involved in Admissions.
· As the following respondents explained, once preparation and administrative work was factored in, their actual pay amounts to £4-5 pounds an hour of work, which is well below the national minimum wage.
I'm getting paid less than 4 pounds per hour if you take everything into account. That's ridiculous.
Assuming that a single administration hour and no preparation work is required is absurd, particularly for ECR's, who may not be familiar with all the material being taught and therefore need to spend more time preparing. I am currently teaching [material], which I had not taught before and therefore needed to read, read about, and research appropriate questions etc. I also familiarised myself with the lecture notes available on Weblearn so that I had an idea of what the students would have been taught in their lectures. I have just come to the end of my first week of teaching. I worked midday-6pm on Monday, 9am-7pm Tuesday-Thursday, and intend to work 10am-6pm today, making this a 39 hour week (allowing for lunch hours). For this, my pay (895 per month) works out at just below £200 per week, or £5 per hour. This would be unacceptable elsewhere, and I cannot understand why this is acceptable at Oxford.
· Teaching staff are at times provided with limited support, and not offered the opportunities that could further enhance their CVs and skill sets:
For myself I have no real issues with my work experience as a JRF. It's on the teaching side that I think there are more problems: the hours one puts in, especially as a new tutor learning how to teach the course, really aren't reflected in the pay; much of the training on offer (DLT) is a complete waste of time; and in my faculty at least, there isn't much in the way of guidance from or communication with other, especially senior teaching staff. One thing that would be good is a slightly enlarged, more faculty-specific version of the PLTO, with senior teaching staff in the faculty. Another is opportunities to develop one's own modules, special subject papers, supplementary lecture/seminar series, etc., in collaboration with or with oversight from more senior people - as this is something one is often expected to do at other universities, and Oxford with its very fixed curricula doesn't offer much opportunity for this, especially to junior staff.
· Graduate students on teaching contracts are particularly vulnerable, and feel they are underpaid for the work that they do:
T Teaching for the department [..] pays a significant amount below minimum wage, and students are misled into believing they are required to do this in order to teach for a college. Graduate students are blamed for the extra work required, and told that they ought to be able to mark more efficiently than is possible to do a good job, and that they ought to know all of the courses well enough to require no preparation. Teaching at colleges is better, but it is still a lot of work with very little training and doesn't pay enough for the work and hours and skill-level.
Lack of Transparency
· Early career staff stated a lack of transparency on pay and the allocation of jobs, particularly casual contracts, as illustrated by the following quotations:
I do a significant amount of teaching (64 hours per term) and have done so for 2 years. This is the amount of teaching undertaken by fully employed lecturers/ associate professors. However there is no transparent process for moving from an hourly paid lecturer to a fully time lecturer.
I think my situation is quite typical of early career researchers. We face tremendous competing pressures and work in precarious conditions that do not look set to improve in the near future.... I struggle with the moral economy of favours in academia, which I am inclined to contribute to, and the sense that there is no loyalty or security, so my contributions are appreciated in the moment (maybe), but they don't add up to anything more stable and can leave me feeling exploited.
They should hire more permanent staff to teach on degrees and have a fairer system for allocating and remunerating the work done by non-core teaching staff who are helping out with degrees.
My experience with the colleges I have worked for has been a positive one, both in terms of the teaching and support from the colleges. At a departmental level I have found things more nebulous and unclear, particular regarding organizational structures and expected knowledge of how the faculty works (for example, as I first time Examiner, nothing was explained to me in terms of procedure or deadlines, particular when it came to marking scripts).
It is hugely disorganized, with very little info to a new starter on how teaching is organized. As a result I took on way too much, not knowing what was involved.
The hourly payment for tutorial and seminar teaching is complicated and opaque. It seems that one might not get paid the right amount, or even paid at all, if one does not make an effort to find out and assert what one is entitled to for the work undertaken. The system by which preparation and marking is notionally paid for under the hourly rate is unsatisfactory.
· Several EC staff feel that the working conditions at Oxford are so bad that had they known before they would have declined the job offer. Many are hoping to leave Oxford once their contract comes to an end.
Hideous - I would leave if I could find a faculty position. I work well above my grade with very extensive responsibilities for project creation, management, networking and presentation at high levels (in policy circles and organisational hierarchies). There is no prospect of career advancement, no interest in my contribution and I feel completely exploited. At an equivalent level at a consultancy practice, I would be on at least 10K more in salary, and be identified for promotion.
· Working conditions, including office spaces are seen as inadequate:
I feel the University is not a good employer. I can see my colleagues with college contracts having numerous advantages I do not have. The contract I am on barely gives one the means to survive and the expectations are very demanding. Some basic working conditions such as working space and office are not met.
Also, neither my college or my department provides office facilities, so I have no set place to work; it would be really helpful if there was some sort of central organisation that ensured that each ECR at least has a desk to call their own somewhere.
· Furthermore, early career staff feel poorly integrated into their departments, as one of the post doctorate respondents explained:
Being a postdoc is pretty crap here. I don't really feel part of the University and getting involved in stuff is difficult without college affiliation.
Stress and mental health
· Job insecurity can adversely affect personal and mental wellbeing, and the support for stress and mental health related issues is considered inadequate:
The university uses early career researchers to cover their teaching needs without paying them properly, or giving them proper contracts. Also there is no concept of tenure at this university which is very unsettling and disheartening. I feel stressed all the time and disvalued by my department and university.
· Respondents expressed that they would have appreciated more opportunities for personal development within their departments and from their line-managers:
it is extremely badly-managed. mentoring, KPIs, teamwork, communication, evaluation and simple line management are all so deficient as to be negligent.
The scarcity of child-support and long waiting lists for nurseries are a real concern for working parents. Furthermore, childcare arrangements do not allow for after-hour duties and obligations, such as accompanying guest speakers to dinner when chairing a seminar. This may seem trivial, but it does affect a public persona of a scholar and opportunities for networking quite significantly.
There is a disturbing and utterly wrongheaded idea amongst many senior staff - my own PI included - that we have an apparently infinite amount of 'spare time' in which to undertake the extra tasks that a non-teaching contract allows for. As a postdoc, I consider this to be an "early career" position, which would ordinarily have some concern for building a basis for the future, but at present I am being forced to compromise this. Any teaching that I undertake is in my own time, taxed as a second job; any research or publications left over from my recent PhD are to be done at evenings, weekends, and in my annual leave (this has been stated to me by my PI), therefore compromising the quality of my [..] publications.
Not transparent as to how you can gain promotion or can develop your career within the University, what you can do if you would like to continue to work in the University.
In addition, it would be helpful if postdocs could apply as PI for KE projects or the Fell Fund and get paid for this additional work.
· Those without college affiliation feel they are offered little initial support or induction to navigate the system:
Some sort of training/orientation about Oxford itself is needed for staff who haven't done a degree here, as the 'system' can be confusing. Even something each term by way of an induction for new members of staff would be appreciated.
I would have liked to have been affiliated with a College so that I could have access to a wider social network.
· Two respondents had experienced forms of harassment or discrimination in their workplaces:
I am on a more secure contract than many of my peers. Most aspects of my employment at Oxford are extremely positive, rewarding, and enjoyable. There are some negative aspects that are overlooked by this survey. These include: patronising and/or sexist attitudes from a small number of senior fellows; and being left out of the loop for college events. I would also note a problem that effects established staff as well as early career staff: there is still a prevailing assumption that faculty are bachelors without dependents, e.g., seminars and meetings are scheduled for 4 or 5pm.
Oxford University should also change its maternity policy: right now for fixed-term staff it's dreadful and I feel I couldn't have another child. Also, if people are externally funded I was told that maternity pay will be deducted from the grant which would be outrageous and discriminating. The money should come from a central fund at the University. Postdocs usually are in their early 30s which is when many people want to start a family. But they don't know how.
This survey reveals serious concern and dissatisfaction among early career staff at the University of Oxford. Job insecurity and low pay compared to workload are urgent issues, and are at the root of many of the comments surrounding lack of transparency, poor working conditions, lack of support, stress, and discrimination.
Moreover, the results are reflective of wider trends in the University of Oxford, according to the latest available data. Indeed, Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data (collected from the University of Oxford) indicates that 76% of staff at the University of Oxford are on insecure contracts, the 6th highest amongst all UK universities. (Data from Oxford Colleges is not available.) Real terms pay for academics on the national pay scale has fallen by 15% since 2009. Gender discrimination is reflected in pay: female academics at the University of Oxford were paid £7,626 pa less than male academics in 2014/15.
Staff dissatisfaction is an issue that the University of Oxford need to address urgently, since it will likely cause recruitment problems, particularly in the light of the impending HE Bill and Brexit – note that the survey was conducted even before the EU referendum of June 2016.
The Early Career Network was launched by the Oxford University branch of UCU in 2016. The network is for early career staff, including graduate students, post-docs, teaching and support staff, librarians and others in the early stages of their careers. It is designed to discuss the concerns of these staff members relating to the workplace, and possible actions that UCU can take to address them.
Figures for the percentage of staff on casual contracts in Oxford are not publicly available, but this survey indicated that those on these types of contracts tend to hold at least several casual contract at a given time.