Empowering the Freelance Economy

Nepotism at heart of Cambridge freelance supervisor exploitation, says student union report

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A freedom of information (FoI) request by the Cambridge University and College Union (CUCU) branch to Pembroke College has found that the university had been challenged by HMRC over its failure to put freelance college supervisors on the payroll.

Pembroke College defended the practice as “analogous to the college’s use of external maintenance contractors, for example, plumbers and decorators,” it has been reported by The Guardian. While the HMRC subsequently reversed its decision, noting it was “borderline”, the UCU is calling out the prestigious university on unfair working conditions.

Lorena Gazzotti, a postdoctoral researcher who is coordinating a campaign for greater rights for freelance tutors on behalf of the Cambridge UCU, said Cambridge colleges were operating a gig economy “like Deliveroo”, despite advertising supervisions to students as a core feature of Cambridge’s teaching model.

According to the report, supervisors who spoke to the Guardian said they gained work through personal contacts and loose email agreements, with no guarantee of how many students they would receive.

The news will be of no comfort to fee-paying students who expect tutors to be hired for their knowledge rather than on grounds of nepotism and within an inhospitable tutoring environment (e.g., windowless rooms, cramped conditions).

As individual [graduate] students, we need to seek out teaching opportunities without having any clue or any support from ANYONE about how to do so. Supervisors don’t help with this at all.

This creates discrepancies – people who are more well connected to the Oxbridge way of life automatically get ahead – they know the right people to approach, they look the part, etc. International students or even locals who are slightly more introverted don’t stand a chance. In the absence of a system in place, getting even some simple teaching experience under your belt depends on personal network.

Member of the Cambridge Colleges Student Union

The freelance tutors said the £36 an hour rate failed to cover the considerable time required to prepare for supervisions, including covering entire reading lists, and mark papers, with the result that some said their pay worked out at closer to £5 an hour.

The HR data for 2017-18 report research shows that between 1,100 and 3,000 staff members in the University of Cambridge led seminars, lectures, and laboratory demonstrations without a long-term contract; roughly 47% had some form of Worker’s Agreement in place, but the rest were working on a purely ‘freelance’ basis.

The UCU has published a report that says employment insecurity is a major problem at the University of Cambridge.

“While many academics take on hourly-paid work as part of their contractual obligations, others have zero-hour
contracts or no contracts at all, and often lack basic employment rights such as sick pay, holiday pay, parental leave and pension contributions,” said the report.

The researchers of the report noted that there are varying degrees of insecurity in employment. Some staff members have highly secure contracts, some have highly insecure contracts. There are also many stages in between.

In response to the working conditions, the UCU report has highlighted and called for the following for freelance supervisors:

  • Nearly half of undergraduate supervision in Cambridge is carried out by “precariously employed” workers.
  • We want better terms of employment for hourly-paid work
  • When preparation time is factored in, many Cambridge supervisors are being paid the minimum wage or less.
  • We want fair pay that includes payment for preparation time
  • There is unequal access to teaching opportunities in Cambridge
  • We want a system for the fair allocation of teaching work
  • There is unequal access to teaching rooms and other resources
  • We want a framework for the support of teaching work
  • Excessive workloads deplete the quality of teaching and also of research
  • We want equality and security of access to teaching opportunities

A spokesperson for the University of Cambridge said: “A majority of supervisors are self-employed, choose which colleges they prefer to work with, the hours they work and often work with multiple colleges.

“The colleges are separate legal and financial employers, so cannot be covered by a single agreement. Supervisor training is provided for free and the average pay for supervision, including preparation, is well above the living wage.”

Postgraduate supervisors said that although they enjoyed teaching the supervisions and considered the experience valuable, they struggled with the high workload, low pay and contract insecurity, according to the Guardian.

It was also reported that some tutors would not get paid for months, often waiting for an entire term, which would be rare in any freelance or contractor working environment.

“Teaching staff on insecure contracts are often unable to realise their full potential as supervisors. Hourly-paid staff go to great lengths to ensure that their teaching is consistent of the highest quality,” said the UCU report.

“But insecurity also leads to anxiety and over-work, as well as to practical difficulties, such as applying for mortgages. Students stand to benefit from supervisors who are happier and healthier through being securely employed.”

Embitterment towards the system in terms of how teaching is allocated and how merit is not
a part of the allocation of teaching; the so-called training is abysmal and fosters an environment where those more concerned about exerting power over undergrads to assuage their egos are allowed teaching.

Student Union report participant
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