Universidad de Oxford, admisión y elites
Abril 7, 2023

Oxford University’s other diversity crisis

Good luck trying to become a professor if you don’t have family money

By Emma Irving

On a rainy summer’s day, I met Henry at a cosy pub on the outskirts of Oxford. A cheerful man in his 40s, with cherubic curls and a mischievous grin, he was wearing shorts in defiance of the British weather. As we waited to be seated, he eyed up a chicken-and-bacon club sandwich on a neighbouring table and joked, “I need a bit of fattening up, don’t you think?”

Once the waiter took our orders, Henry’s jovial demeanour faded. He nervously scanned the faces of the other diners, in case one belonged to a former colleague from the well-known university nearby. He didn’t want anyone to overhear what he was about to tell me about his past life in academia.

Henry was born into a poor farming family in rural south-west England. He was a bright and curious child and, at the age of 11, he won a bursary to a private boys’ school. Though dedicated to his studies, he continued to help out with farm chores. His mother would often wake him in the middle of the night to assist with a cow in labour. “I’d be there, half asleep, pulling on a rope tied to the calf’s leg,” before going to school the next day, he told me.

Even though no one in Henry’s family had gone to university before, his teacher encouraged him to apply to Oxford. Opening the acceptance letter was a “life-changing” moment, he said, “full of enjoyment and anticipation and excitement for the future”. He had sometimes felt like an outsider growing up: his academic ambition distinguished him from his family, and his background set him apart from his school friends. But at Oxford he never doubted that he belonged. He was popular with both peers and tutors, and received one of the few yearly academic scholarships available to undergraduates.

Henry thought about becoming a lawyer after university: the fact that law firms provided funding for the conversion course made this a viable path for someone who had no family wealth to rely on. But he also applied to a highly competitive masters programme at Oxford. When he was offered a place, one of his tutors urged him to accept, assuring him that he would have a successful career in academia. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say he twisted my arm,” Henry said. “But he certainly made it clear that he thought it would be a big shame for me not to go on and do that.”

Henry had sometimes felt like an outsider growing up: his academic ambition distinguished him from his family, and his background set him apart from his school friends

So Henry stayed at Oxford, completing a two-year masters degree before embarking on a phd (which the university calls a dphil). He received a grant for his postgraduate studies from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (ahrc), a funding body, but there was a cap of four years total funding per student. It normally takes five years to complete both a masters and dphil in Henry’s subject, meaning students had to self-fund for a year. (ahrc funding is now restricted to phds.)

Henry qualified for some hardship funding, but he realised that the rest of his tuition would have to be paid for through a combination of short-term, badly paid teaching roles and non-academic work. For the first year of his dphil, he moved back in with his parents to save money on rent, commuting two-and-a-half hours to Oxford twice a week; he also worked at a company near his home two days a week. In his third year, he returned to Oxford, and held down three part-time jobs – all while completing a course of study that the university officially characterises as a “full-time occupation”.

Henry was nearly 30 when he finished his thesis. (He had extended his dphil by a year to give him more time to fund his degree.) Although he still wanted to be an academic, he couldn’t help but compare himself with friends who had gone into other fields. In many other professions, nine years of training would easily lead to lucrative opportunities. But many of the roles open to postgraduates like Henry were fixed-term contract (or “casual”) positions – teaching-heavy jobs that often last just nine months to a year. These jobs are often poorly compensated and typically lack employment rights such as sick pay. Even so, competition for them is intense, so Henry felt lucky to secure a year-long lectureship at one of the 44 colleges that make up Oxford.

One might expect that a university as rich as Oxford – which has an estimated total endowment of £6.4bn, if colleges are included – would be able to fund many well-paid academic positions, and would be especially keen to employ its high-achieving graduates. But Henry’s role only paid a stipend of around £14,500. (A stipend is a fixed amount of money that is provided for training to offset specific expenses. It is not legally considered compensation for work performed.) That amount is not unusual for a stipendiary lectureship at Oxford, even today. At the time of writing, an advertised job at a college was offering a stipend of between £13,700 and £15,500 a year.

This is a shockingly low figure for people who have spent nearly a decade becoming experts in their fields. (In contrast, a newly qualified solicitor at one of Britain’s biggest law firms, who will have trained for five or six years, can expect to earn on average just over £72,000 annually.) The university itself estimates that the living costs of a single undergraduate or postgraduate with no dependents are between £14,600 and £21,100 a year in 2023. These stipends also fall far below the median annual salary in Britain, which was £33,000 in 2022. “They treat us like we are very low pond life,” said one academic, who held fixed-term contracts with the university and various colleges for 15 years. “They market [courses] on the basis of our reputations…and yet they won’t even give us a business card saying we teach at the university.” (Oxford declined to respond to this allegation and a number of other specific ones in this piece.)

Walk the streets of Oxford, and you will be plunged back into the Middle Ages. The university’s three oldest colleges (Balliol, Merton, and University) were founded in the mid-1200s, and many of the others were built by the mid-1500s. Visitors are charmed by the whirr and hum of intellectual life and the sandstone buildings that shift in colour from cream to burnished gold as the sun sets. But this seductive warren – bristling with spires and pinnacles, abounding with quadrangles and gardens glimpsed through gates – can also feel intimidating to outsiders.

As one might expect of an institution that has accreted over hundreds of years, the University of Oxford has a structure as labyrinthine as its surroundings. The central university funds and administers departments and faculties, where lectures and laboratory facilities are provided. The self-governing colleges admit students and deliver the intensive tutorials, often one-on-one, that make the Oxford experience distinctive. Academics with permanent positions usually have both a position in their faculty, such as a professorship, and a fellowship in one of the colleges.

The university has been a political and financial springboard for nearly a thousand years. Graduates from the university – and from Cambridge, its rival – fill the highest echelons of the law, media and politics in Britain and around the world. Of Britain’s 57 prime ministers, 30 graduated from Oxford.

Of the permanent academics who declared their ethnicity, 8.5% identify as coming from an ethnic minority; the average for British universities is 20%. Only 11 of the 1,952 permanent academic staff at Oxford are black

Over the past three decades, the university’s elite reputation has made it a target for grievances about Britain’s lack of social mobility. Both Oxford and Cambridge came under pressure to stop favouring private-school applicants, who tend to come from rich families, and to admit more state-school students from a range of backgrounds. Now Oxford spends around £13m a year on “access” initiatives, including outreach to state schools. The university also offers financial help to poorer students: today one in four British undergraduates at Oxford receives an annual bursary.

Measures like these have begun to make the student body more diverse. In 2021, more than two-thirds of undergraduates admitted to Oxford went to state-school – one of the highest ratios since the university began recording detailed admissions statistics in 2007. (Although, as less than a fifth of sixth-form students in the country are privately educated, they are still disproportionately represented at Oxford.) Gender and racial diversity also improved: in 2021, 55% of the British students admitted to Oxford were women, and the percentage of places offered to ethnic-minority students rose to 25%.

The picture is very different for those hoping to forge an academic career at Oxford. Around 80% of full professors are male; the average for British universities is 72%. Of the permanent academics who declared their ethnicity, 8.5% identify as coming from an ethnic minority; the average for British universities is 20%. Only 11 of the 1,952 permanent academic staff at Oxford are black.

These skewed statistics owe much to the rise of the gig economy in academia – and to Oxford’s particularly strong reliance on insecure contracts. According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (hesa) for the 2019-20 academic year, around one-third of all academic staff in Britain are employed on insecure fixed-term contracts. That figure jumps to two-thirds at Oxford, despite its resources. Cambridge, which shares many of Oxford’s institutional quirks, such as independent colleges, employs significantly less of its academic staff – two-fifths – on fixed-term contracts.

The actual rate of casual work across the university is likely to be even higher than these figures suggest because they only reflect contracts between staff and the central university; individual colleges decide their own employment contracts and are not obliged to collect data about them, despite the fact that most teaching roles are college-based. When approached for comment by 1843 magazine, an Oxford spokesperson acknowledged that “a significant number of our researchers are on fixed-term contracts, which is a consequence of the funding model for much of UK research and an issue right across the higher-education sector.”

Notably, Oxford does not publish data on the socio-economic backgrounds of its permanent academics. But I found, in nearly 30 interviews with fixed-term, permanent and former academics, that those who were not from affluent families found it difficult to withstand the precarity imposed by the academic gig-economy. These pressures seemed to be particularly acute for women and people from ethnic-minority backgrounds.

Casualisation, as this proliferation of insecure contracts has become known, works as a filter favouring the “gentleman academic” – someone who is rich enough to navigate the instability, poor pay and opaque hiring processes for permanent roles. “This is what it used to be in the 18th and 19th century where if you had money then you could have a sort of leisure job,” one academic who grew up in the care system told me. Although she continues to teach at Oxford, she is prioritising a secondary career in order to make ends meet.

When Henry began his teaching at Oxford, he hoped it would help him secure a permanent job. According to his recollection, no one employed by the university had ever outlined how unlikely this outcome was. He remembers being told on just one occasion – six years into his academic career – that permanent roles were scarce.

Over the next seven years, Henry hopped from one fixed-term contract to the next. (British law dictates that successive fixed-term contracts can last a maximum of four years in total before a person is, in most cases, presumed by law to be a permanent employee. But because each of the colleges at Oxford is considered a separate employer, academics can be caught in limbo for years.) As soon as he finished one contract, he would start searching for his next, a time-consuming process. Some of his contracts lasted only the academic year, which meant the summers – when most academics are meant to do their research – went unpaid, as did the months-long periods between contracts.

Henry was comparatively lucky: other academics he knew held ad-hoc teaching positions, which were paid by the hour. Even so, he shuttled from one house-share to the next, often unsure how he would pay the rent. His friends stopped inviting him out, because they knew he could not afford to join them. Another academic in a similar situation told me that she never put the heating on and shopped as frugally as possible; even so, she still only had about £7 a day to live on, once rent had been taken care of.

One academic I spoke to was informed, at the end of a lunch with her teaching supervisor, that her hours – and therefore her salary – were being halved with four weeks’ notice

It is not uncommon for fixed-term contract workers to struggle to make ends meet. Many are on contracts that mean they are only paid for the hours they spend teaching: they receive no pay for preparation, administration or pastoral care. This may prevent them from cobbling together several supposedly part-time fixed-term contracts, as, in reality, even one such contract may end up taking as many hours as a full-time role. A number of academics told me that they would often spend at least three or four hours preparing for an hour-long tutorial, for which they would then be paid £25 – pushing the cost of their labour far below the minimum wage (which, as of 2023, is £10.42 an hour for those aged over 23).

Short-term contracts can be altered or cancelled without much notice, which also takes a mental toll. One academic I spoke to was informed, at the end of a lunch with her teaching supervisor, that her hours – and therefore her salary – were being halved with four weeks’ notice. “It was just kind of a haphazard comment,” she said. She never received any formal notice.

Casual contracts offer a chance for academics to develop a professional relationship with the university but, paradoxically, their demands on academics’ time make it very difficult to secure a permanent position. Since teaching obligations and part-time work consumed his days and nights, Henry found it near-impossible to immerse himself in his own work. But, as he discovered when applying for jobs, institutions place the most value on research – even for fixed-term positions with no research element. The prospect of a permanent job seemed to recede ever further into the distance. “I know of no other industry where this absurd situation could possibly exist,” he told me. “A situation where doing your actual job well” – teaching – “is detrimental to your career prospects.”

This emphasis on research is a legacy of government policy going back nearly 40 years. In 1985, the Conservative government, which wanted universities to think of themselves more like businesses, decided to give more money to those institutions that prioritised research. For some universities, this created a virtuous cycle. Their excellence in research pushed them up the university league tables, meaning they got more money from external sources, such as government agencies, non-profit organisations and corporations. Oxford’s total research income is consistently the highest of any British university. In the 2020-21 academic year, the university received more than £800m in research funding; this year, the university again came top in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – a spot it has held since 2017.

In order to hoover up money, universities have become more inclined to hire people with a track record of published research. But it has become increasingly hard to carve out time in the library without private means of support. As the tutor who grew up in care put it, academia is now “a lifestyle choice, not a career”.

Henry discussed his plight with a colleague who had moved back in with his parents for five years after completing his dphil. He was able to dedicate himself entirely to research, which led to an offer for a permanent job at Oxford. The colleague advised Henry to cut down on the amount of time he dedicated to teaching. Henry tried to explain that it was impossible for him to do so. “If you went to your parents and said ‘Hey, listen, I’m just gonna live at home for five years and I want you to support me so I can get my dream job,’ I think most people’s parents would give you a good shake,” Henry said, his exasperation palpable. “But that’s why it is far easier to get a permanent academic job if you are rich than if you are poor.”

British universities are enrolling more postgraduates than ever. At Oxford, between 2006 and 2021, the number of postgraduate students at the university almost doubled. These kinds of students are particularly lucrative for universities, as both domestic and international students usually have to pay hefty fees. Moreover, they often help to teach the growing number of undergraduates – most of whom pay the £9,250 annual cap on fees set by the national government in 2015. (From the 2015-16 academic year onwards, the cap on student numbers was removed, meaning that universities were allowed to recruit as many as they liked.) Postgraduates, even after receiving their doctorates, continue to benefit universities: early-career academics are an enthusiastic, inexpensive and expendable form of labour, willing to do anything to secure a rare permanent job.

At Oxford – an extremely desirable place to study and work – this dynamic is particularly pronounced. “It [has] prestige,” one academic put it bluntly. The academic who grew up in care explained that “what happens is the kids who come from [working-class] backgrounds are the most enamoured by the status,” said one academic. “They are the ones who want to stay on and do masters and phds, but they do not have the solid middle-class background that will allow them a cushion.”

Henry was already working over 50 hours a week. Now he began to spend an extra 20 hours a week on research

And, as Henry discovered, they have only a slender chance of carving out a viable career there. The turnover rate of permanent academics at British universities is low, meaning that the number of jobs available at any one time for the expanding glut of phd students is very small. At Oxford, associate professors, who constitute the main academic grade, are initially appointed for a period of five years, after which a review takes place; if they pass, they have a job until retirement. At the time of writing, only five associate professorships were being advertised on Oxford’s cross-college jobs board.

Oxford’s institutional structure may impede efforts to diversify the backgrounds of its hires. Unlike other universities, hiring at Oxford is not organised centrally; instead, a small committee is appointed, usually constituting academics associated with the relevant college and department. Such committees may themselves lack diversity. “They have almost total autonomy over what they choose to do,” an associate professor told me. “Then there’s very little information sharing that happens from one committee to the next.” One academic I spoke to suggested there was a “culture of favouritism”, with some academics potentially benefiting from their connection to permanent academics – for example, a phd supervisor who is particularly influential.

There is also no requirement for individual colleges to collect demographic data on their staff. According to Simukai Chigudu, an associate professor of African politics at the Department of International Development and a Fellow of St Antony’s College, this has implications for diversity of all kinds. “There isn’t a central mechanism to say we’re going to do a number of strategic hires in certain disciplines or with a certain profile,” he told me. Like most Oxford professors, Chigudu began his career on a fixed-term contract. He reckons he only managed to obtain a permanent job because his predecessor, one of the few black professors in Oxford, died, resulting in a vacancy in his department. The lack of transparency at Oxford, he believes, means that there is insufficient reflection about the demographic make-up of its academics: “We just keep reproducing ourselves,” he said.

Diversity among the academic body at Oxford is not helped by the fact that ethnic minorities and women are disproportionately represented (compared with white men) on the very fixed-term contracts that make it difficult to obtain permanent jobs. One young woman academic – an immigrant from an ethnic-minority family – said that “there’s often this assumption that if you’re in Oxford or Cambridge, you must come from a very privileged background.” Yet ethnic-minority academics are more likely to come from poorer backgrounds than their white counterparts: according to a 2020 report by the Social Metrics Commission, just under half of ethnic-minority families in the UK are poor, compared with one-fifth of white families. The academic had come to feel that, given the odds against her, she should be grateful for securing even a fixed-term contract.

Meanwhile many women academics seeking to have children are unlikely to receive maternity leave if on a fixed-term contract. One academic found out she was pregnant while on her third consecutive one-year contract with the same Oxford college; she had held a total of 13 different contracts over the previous five years. “It was very weird going on maternity leave knowing that that was the end of my job,” she told me. “It’s truly my dream job. And it was a completely irrational thing, but for a while I resented the baby because it felt like I had been forced to give up a job I love.”

These unsustainable emotional and financial dynamics lead many women and people from ethnic-minority or poor backgrounds to quit academia altogether. “I’ve compared it before to being in a slightly abusive relationship,” one woman, who left academia under the strain of becoming a mother, told me. “There’s always that little thread of hope that you’ll get there in the end, which keeps you hanging on and putting up with the poor conditions.”

By 2014, half of Henry’s undergraduates were achieving firsts, the top mark, in their finals – an impressive success rate. But he still hadn’t published much research. He sought to explain his situation to the professors at his college and receive reassurance that he was on track for a permanent position. Instead they “casually dismissed” his worries about money, he said. “Of course, no universities say they do not want to hire poor people. But it was clear that it was socially taboo to even mention [his financial situation],” he claimed.

Henry felt there were few options open to him outside of academia. phds are often so specialised that many academics – particularly those in the humanities – can’t imagine what else they might do. He also feared that he would be considered a failure for giving up after coming so far. “One of the difficulties in leaving is that there’s almost a shame attached to [it],” another academic, who is now a teacher, told me. “There is a kind of mythology in meritocracy which is if you try hard enough, if you’re good enough, you will get there in the end…And of course the implication if you do leave is you weren’t good enough…rather than just saying there’s just not enough jobs.”

Two academics who were on fixed-term contracts at Oxford for 15 years – until their contracts were not renewed in 2022 – are now suing the university

He arranged a meeting with the college’s recently appointed “equality and diversity representative”, whom he hoped would be receptive to his concerns. Yet the representative rebuffed him, he said. He remembers the representative suggesting that he simply had to put in more hours and that the current selection criteria for permanent academic roles were fine. If Henry hadn’t published research by now, the representative said, then there was something wrong. “By that, I understood he meant: something wrong with you,” Henry recalled. “There was a sense of disgust at my saying…I needed to work for money.”

Already working over 50 hours a week, Henry now began to spend an extra 20 hours a week on research. He would read academic articles during meals and in bed. He cut himself off from friends and family. His partner Laura became concerned – Henry had loved going to the theatre, the cinema and dance classes with her (they had met while ballroom dancing). But he was no longer his gregarious self; instead, he was barely present.

Henry eventually came to what he described as a “completely overwhelming” realisation: that he had been “seriously exploited, seriously deceived” by the university. After years of hard work, “I had nothing. I had no savings. I was entirely burned out, and I had no career prospects. I realised I was at a dead end and would likely remain in the depths of poverty for the rest of my life.”

For many years, Oxford’s culture of individualism, fractured collegiate structure and revolving door of fixed-term employees have largely prevented academics from taking collective action. Yet the university’s gig workers, along with those from other institutions, have managed to make some gains in recent years. Last November, the University and College Union (ucu) organised the biggest strike in the history of British higher education: over 70,000 lecturers, librarians and researchers across 150 universities, including Oxford, took part in three days of strikes. (In January, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association made a revised pay offer to the ucu, which found the new terms inadequate; they announced 18 further days of strike action in February and March. On February 17th the ucu announced a two week pause in the strikes to facilitate further negotiations, which are ongoing.)

Legal precedent, too, is changing. In October 2021, lecturers on independent-contractor contracts won a case against Goldsmiths University in London. Now, they are granted the same employment rights as full-time workers, such as the minimum wage, paid holiday, and protection against unlawful discrimination and salary deductions. Inspired by that case, two academics who were on fixed-term contracts at Oxford for 15 years – until their contracts were not renewed in 2022 – are suing the university.

An Oxford spokesperson told 1843 magazine that “the university acknowledges the pressures of working on fixed-term contracts and that these can bear disproportionately on women and ethnic minority groups.” It has introduced some measures that it claims will improve conditions for early-career academics and institutional diversity. In September it appointed its first chief diversity officer, and fixed-term researchers can now apply for internal funds to cover research costs. According to the spokesperson, Oxford exceeded its 2020 target to ensure that women comprise at least a third of the members of important decision-making bodies, and has “announced an independent review of pay and working conditions for all staff at the university.”

“My career will never get back onto the same track as if I’d left university at the same time as my friends did”

Questions remain over how effective these measures will be. And for some scholars, like Henry, the changes are coming too late. He left academia at the end of 2015, after a breakdown. “I was very close to being suicidal and it was only through Laura’s support and the National Health Service that I managed to hold things together and get through,” he said. (He completed six weeks of talking therapy.)

He is now married to Laura and works in an administrative role in a town outside Oxford. “My career will never get back onto the same track as if I’d left university at the same time as my friends did,” he said. “But in some ways I think I was very lucky. I was the very last generation who didn’t pay university fees. I was in a pretty bad way when I decided to leave academia. But if I had £50,000 of undergraduate debt and £25,000 of postgraduate debt, I would have…” He looked down at his plate. “Let’s just say, I don’t like to think about what I would have done.”

Henry and I left the pub. The rain had stopped, and the sun had come out. To the south Oxford stood, proud and beautiful. The city looked from another time, or another world. Henry caught my eye and smiled. He turned his back on the place and slowly walked away.

Some names have been changed

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to reflect that postgraduates at Oxford are not expected to teach unpaid.

Emma Irving is newsletters editor at The Economist

illustrations: ewelina karpowiak


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