How Oxford Works
At 2 p.m. today the University of Oxford's legislative body, Congregation, will meet in the Sheldonian Theatre. All academic staff are members of Congregation, and any twenty of them can propose a resolution for debate. For consideration today is a resolution that would revise the university's submission to Universities UK's September consultation on staff pensions. Oxford, along with Cambridge, was among the 42 per cent of employers who called for the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) to take 'less risk', which in practice means a shift from a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension. It now appears that one-third of the employers calling for 'less risk' were constituent colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.
This substantive resolution can be debated only if Congregation passes a prior procedural resolution, suspending a statutory regulation that requires resolutions to be submitted 22 days before a meeting of Congregation. The pensions resolution was submitted 18 days ago, soon after Oxbridge's role in the proposed cuts was revealed and academics realised what had been done in their name. Today’s meeting is the last of this term.
Suspensions are not unprecedented; also before Congregation today is a resolution to suspend the statutory regulation that says that the Sermon on the Grace of Humility shall be preached on Quinquagesima Sunday. But any proposed suspension to regulations can be blocked by just twenty members of Congregation. Almost as soon as this resolution was proposed, its sponsors were informed that twenty such people 'may well' stand up to close down the debate. If the twenty members do stand, the resolution will not be debated until 24 April. Time is of the essence. The deadline for the final valuation of USS is 30 June. Cambridge is debating a similar motion on 19 March.
Oxford’s vice chancellor, Louise Richardson, has made her views on the pension dispute clear, reiterating in her emails to staff various UUK shibboleths: that the proposed pension cuts are a result of meetings 'between the representatives of the employers and employees'; that Oxford, as 'one of over 350 members' of USS, has only limited influence on the outcome of the consultation; that cuts to pensions have 'become increasingly common in response to the pressure investment-funded pension schemes have faced'.
All three claims are matters of heated dispute. Few academics, at Oxford or elsewhere, were aware of the response submitted to the UUK consultation on their behalf. Nor is it obvious that Oxford has only limited influence: sixteen 'Oxbridge institutions' submitted responses in line with the university's. That financial pressures require USS to change to a defined contribution scheme has been disputed not just by the academics on strike, but by an independent actuarial evaluation. Stephen Toope, the VC of Cambridge, has said that he ‘strongly support[s] the exploration of ideas to resolve this situation, including those put forward by UCU’ (the University and Colleges Union). He also said that Cambridge is ‘prepared to consider’ an increase in employer contributions to staff pensions.
In an email to staff yesterday, Richardson said that she has been ‘disheartened these past few days by the tenor of some of the debate’ around the pensions. ‘As a university,’ she went on, ‘we take pride in our defence of freedom of speech, in reasoned argument, and evidence based decisions. If we are to impart these qualities to our students, we should, at a minimum, practice [sic] them among ourselves.’ She doesn’t say who she thinks is not ‘practising these qualities’.
Tweets with the hashtag #JeezLouise (invented by undergraduates) are a mix of heartening photos from the picket lines and complaints about Richardson’s attempts to undermine the university’s democratic processes. Oxford’s lecturers, like academics across the country, have spent our strike days teaching for free, on the picket line and at teach-ins. Sixty-nine members of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations sent a letter to students explaining why we support the strike. Academics, at Oxford and elsewhere, have carefully exposed the many obfuscations of UUK. The target of Richardson’s smears may not be clear, but the desired effect is. The invocation of ‘free speech’, ‘reasoned argument’ and ‘evidence based decisions’ is a dog-whistle to those who would believe that striking academics are ideologues, rather than people who think and care deeply about higher education.
On 27 February, the president and provost of Imperial College said that Imperial, as ‘an institution that prides itself on evidence-based analysis’, called on UUK and USS to ‘jointly convene an expert group … to provide full transparency on the assumptions, data and modelling approach that has been used’ in the USS valuation. ‘We recognise that we have such experts at Imperial.’