Notes from an open meeting for tutors held on Monday 14 February 2022
Oxford UCU has organised a second open meeting at 1pm on Monday 14 March to report on outcomes from the meeting with ContEd management and to consider next steps. All ContEd tutors are encouraged to register and join the discussion.
Mikal Mast, Oxford UCU caseworker coordinator, welcomed participants and explained the purpose of the meeting, noting that Oxford UCU has become aware of various issues around pay and contracts through casework and the activities of the anti-casualisation network (organised by Tom White). These issues are common across colleges and the University, but seem especially widespread at the Department for Continuing Education, which is why a meeting with tutors was arranged to provide the opportunity to share experiences and plan further action. Department administrators reached out to UCU to discuss working together with UCU to make progress on these issues, and UCU representatives arranged a meeting with them to explore options.
University contract types
In a 2021 update of a UCU report on Precarious Work in Higher Education, UCU set out a position on zero-hours contracts, noting in particular that “Everyone should have the right to a contract that guarantees the hours they work”.
The University HR website on employment status does not use the term zero hour contracts, although a range of casual contracts might meet this definition (occasional lecturers, casual workers, casual teaching). Variable hours contracts certainly meet the definition, in that there is no obligation for the employer to offer work, nor for the worker to accept work. On the other hand, unlike the other casual contracts, variable hours CAN be permanent CMS contracts (CMS refers to ‘Chancellor, Master and Scholars of the University of Oxford’, which are University employee contracts).
ContEd participants emphasised that under their contracts they are not considered to be University employees. Tutors are on a range of casual contracts, depending on the type of work they are contracted to do, and they noted that their contracts are explicitly called ‘zero-hours’ contracts.
Some are on consultancy contracts, others have contracts for services, others are on several types of contracts simultaneously (or even working for several universities), and some are still considered self-employed – which caused additional difficulty during Covid because they were not eligible for furlough while at the same time blocked from accessing government self employment support grants.
The problems facing ContEd tutors are not just restricted to precarious contracts – their contractual situation leads directly to another major workplace problem – low pay.
Issues regarding part-time tutor pay
Amount that tutors are paid
ContEd recently reduced the hourly teaching rate for face-to-face tutors from £35ph to £23.18ph, a drop of 34%. At the same time, they have for the first time acknowledged at least some of the hours that tutors spend preparing and reporting, and agreed to pay 4 hours for every 2 hours taught. This means that there is an overall increase in the amount of pay received for a 10-week course. However, tutors have been doing hours of unpaid preparation for years; this new arrangement looks like “giving with one hand whilst taking with the other”.
Weekly, WOW and summer school courses now pay 2 hours for submitting a proposal for a new course. Again, this is far below the amount of time actually required for preparing a proposal, let alone preparing for 20 hours of teaching, and leaves designing the course effectively unremunerated. Award-bearing courses do not pay at all for preparing course proposals.
The University of Oxford claims that it pays all its staff the Oxford Living Wage (OLW, going up to £10.50ph in April), and after quite a bit of pressure, ContEd began to pay tutors the OLW for marking three years ago, based on the notion that it takes half an hour to mark and administer a 500-word script. (Many tutors agree that in fact it often takes far longer than this, but ContEd has refused to canvas tutors to find out.) For MSc essays it appears that ContEd expects tutors to mark at double that rate: 1,000 words in half an hour.
ContEd have been asked why marking is paid at Grade 1, rather than Grade 7.8, which is what teaching payments have now been linked to, but have declined to answer.
Delays in paying tutors
In one example, for 10-week on-line and face-to-face classes, marking is not paid until after the end of term. So this term, for example, marking completed in early March will not be paid until the end of May.
Holiday pay is paid separately, and not until after the end of the 10-week term: so for teaching done in January, the holiday pay element of the hourly rate will not be paid until the end of April.
Mistakes in paying tutors
In December 2021, it came to light that all on-line tutors had been underpaid (by about £130 each, or 12%) in the Michaelmas term, and were about to be underpaid again in the Hilary term. When ContEd admin was alerted to this by a tutor, it was blamed on a “database error”. No apology was offered and no explanation of how this could be avoided in future given (despite this question being asked in an on-line tutor meeting on 9 February 2022).
This is not the first time that tutors have been underpaid.
The opacity of payslips
Payments appear on tutors’ payslips without proper explanation, which makes it very difficult for tutors to check that they have been paid correctly. As a result, many don’t check their payslips – or if they do, they give up trying to untangle them – and this allows the underpayments mentioned earlier to go unnoticed.
At a recent on-line tutors’ meeting this issue – the lack of transparency in payslips – was raised; an administrator said that this was a central University issue, and that she had been asking for it to be resolved for almost 20 years. However, no reasons for why payslips can’t be made more user-friendly were offered. Tutors with access to the VPN can check their payslips on-line, but these are simply electronic versions of the paper ones. Another administrator reported that she has details of every payment made and that tutors could always contact her for an explanation. If this information is apparently available within ContEd, why can’t it be made available to tutors routinely?
Campaign to improve contracts for Creative Writing tutors
Since 2018, tutors for the MSt in Creative Writing have been campaigning against the department’s use of casualised contracts and for improved pay. Rebecca Abrams described how their campaign began with an open letter signed by more than twenty creative writing tutors. In 2019, having received no response from the department, the tutors contacted the Society of Authors to assist with and support their campaign. Rebecca also noted the campaign by short course tutors at Goldsmiths, who mounted a successful legal challenge against their classification as ‘independent contractors’. Their reclassification as workers means they are now entitled to certain employment rights: being paid at least the National Minimum Wage, the right to union representation, paid holiday and protection against unlawful discrimination and against unlawful deductions from their wages.
The creative writing tutors met with ContEd’s finance and HR directors in December 2019. However, with the onset of the pandemic, these discussions were paused by the department until December 2021. In a meeting in January 2022, ContEd proposed a new arrangement for creative writing tutors: ‘Departmental Lecturer’ roles with either fixed or variable hours and an option for freelance contracts with payment rates negotiated between the department and the tutor. The details of the proposed new contracts are still under negotiation. We understand that this arrangement may be extended to other tutor groups.