One-third of supervisors are postgraduate students or freelancersLouis Ashworth

Cambridge colleges have been accused of exploiting “gig economy” temporary teaching staff to deliver supervisions, according to research by members of the University and College Union (UCU) which suggests that almost half of supervisions are delivered by “gig economy” workers who do not hold proper contracts.

The investigations from the UCU found that nearly half of supervisions at Cambridge colleges are delivered by precariously-employed teaching staff, one-third of whom are postgraduate students or freelancers who have recently completed their PhDs.

Many supervisors gained work at Cambridge through email agreements and personal contracts offering a rate of £31 per supervision with no guarantee of the numbers of students available.

A Freedom of Information request (FOI) from UCU to Pembroke College showed that the University had been challenged by HMRC about its exclusion of supervisors from the payroll.

Pembroke defended the exclusion as “analogous to the college’s use of external maintenance contractors, for example plumbers and decorators”, and HMRC later reversed its decision.

Several anonymous supervisors who spoke to the Guardian stated that the rate of pay failed to cover the high preparation workload of supervisions, which includes setting reading lists and marking papers.

One supervisor, who relied on teaching hours to supplement his £12,000 annual stipend, had his hours cut suddenly and claimed that he had “no protection” due to lack of an official contract.

“A framework [to] eliminate the use of precarious contracts” is one of the UCU’s “four fights” for which it has campaigned at institutions across the UK with industrial action in 2019 and 2020, in addition to strikes over pensions, which began in February 2018.

Dr Lorena Gazzotti is a postdoctoral researcher coordinating UCU’s campaign against casualised work, hoping to include demands in the strike action proposed later this year for secure contracts, guaranteed hours and higher pay.

Speaking to Varsity in September on the UCU ballot to strike, which opens at 152 institutions on Monday (18/10) and could see strikes begin this term, Gazzotti commented: “It’s extraordinary that such a large proportion of the quality individual and small-group tuition, upon which the reputation of Cambridge is based, is being delivered by people who basically have no workers rights.”

Speaking to the Guardian, she said colleges were operating on a gig economy system “like Deliveroo”.

Gazzoti also critiqued the use of casual workers to deliver Cambridge’s trademark supervision system, saying, “If most people working on your unique selling point are treated as individual contractors you have a problem because this is the main mission of your institution.”

Mary Newbould, who has been a supervisor since finishing her PhD in 2007, said that supervision preparation times correspond to a 75-hour working week but only typically earned around £10,000 a year.

“I’d like to see something formalised and recognised, where you don’t feel like you’re filling a gap,” she stated.

The University of Cambridge stated: “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.”