In their legal battle against Oxford University’s zero-hours contracts policy, playwright Alice Jolly and tutor Rebecca Abrams have drawn a poignant comparison, likening their employment struggles to the challenges faced by the Post Office data system. The two lecturers, who were part of the university’s creative writing course, recently initiated a lawsuit at an employment tribunal, alleging breach of contract and unfair dismissal.
Aged 58 and 61, respectively, Ms. Jolly and Ms. Abrams claim that they were subjected to the unstable conditions characteristic of gig-economy workers, enduring 15 years on insecure casual contracts. The contracts were abruptly terminated in August 2022, shortly after the lecturers had officially voiced their concerns about their working conditions.
During the Tuesday afternoon hearing, presided over by Judge Rupert Read, Dr. Alison MacDonald, head of academic courses at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, provided testimony as a witness for the university. Dr. MacDonald explained that the majority of the tutors’ hours and payments were managed through an IT system known as Redpot. This system, implemented in 2022, aimed to address recurrent complaints from tutoring staff who felt that their pay did not accurately reflect their actual working hours.
Ms. Abrams, residing in Oxford, expressed her dissatisfaction with the Redpot IT system outside the tribunal hearing, drawing a parallel to the problematic Post Office data system. She asserted, “It’s akin to the Post Office data system – inaccurate! Constant errors and underpayments are prevalent.” A colleague supporting the claimants, who chose to remain anonymous, echoed the widespread sentiment among teaching and administrative staff at the University of Oxford that the Redpot system often produced errors.
“There’s considerable room for error in how Redpot operates. Admin can input the incorrect hours for a specific tutor, rates are not regularly corrected or updated, and this is often the case. The result is a lump sum of money without a breakdown, making it challenging for the payee to comprehend,” the colleague explained.
The legal struggle faced by the lecturers highlights the broader challenges experienced by academic staff contending with the gig-like conditions imposed by zero-hours contracts. The alleged mismanagement of the Redpot IT system further exacerbates their grievances, with claims of constant errors and underpayments reflecting the struggles encountered by workers grappling with the notorious Post Office data system.
Ms. Abrams, set to commence teaching the creative writing course next week, underscored the necessity for reforms within the university’s employment practices. The success of the lawsuit could potentially usher in significant changes in the treatment of academic staff, signalling a possible departure from the prevalent gig-economy model in higher education.
As the employment tribunal unfolds, the attention of the academic community and beyond remains fixed on the outcome, anticipating potential reforms that could reshape the landscape for tutors and lecturers at esteemed institutions such as Oxford University.