Lavish ceremonies and a £37k lunch – the cost of Oxford’s honorary degrees revealed

Honorary degree spending included £37,701 on a single lunch for the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Every year, select groups of influential figures enjoy elaborate ceremonies and luxurious lunches at the expense of Oxford University.

New figures obtained by Cherwell reveal how the university has spent thousands of pounds conferring honorary degrees on the wealthy and famous.

Following last week’s revelations over the vice chancellor’s expenses, Cherwell can reveal Oxford spent £143,562 on exclusive events for university VIPs and the university’s chief benefactors – a fee significantly higher than other UK universities. It includes £37,701 spent on a single lunch for the Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi at St Hugh’s after she collected her honorary degree in 2012.

Overall, £4,000 has been spent on trumpeters, £6,950 on choirs and £2,662 on gown hire since 2012. £41,844 has been spent paying for international flights and travel expenses for the honorands.

Last year, the University spent £23,846 organising the events, the highest amount in three years. The price included £5,387 on an honorands’ lunch and £9,795 on honorands’ travel expenses.

The figures were obtained by a freedom of information request.

The Encaenia celebrations involve a number of lunches and garden parties. Photo: Karen Carey/Twitter.

The Encaenia ceremony, which was first held in the eighteenth century, occurs in ninth week of Trinity term each year. It involves closing off the Bodleian Library for a ceremony in which the chancellor confers honours on distinguished figures.

After the ceremony, the honorands are invited to a lavish lunch held in All Souls College, before finishing their day at the annual garden party for benefactors and VIPs. In recent years the ceremony has been viewed by some as a publicity stunt, with mounting costs spent on security barriers.

Attendance is limited to senior university figures, including the proctors, the professor of poetry and the public orator.

The figures come at a time of increasing attention on extravagant spending by senior university figures. Last week, Cherwell revealed that vice chancellor Louise Richardson spent £38,339 on expenses last year alone, with £56,522 spent on air travel since she took her position in January 2016.

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Other figures awarded honorary degrees in recent years include Shirley Williams, Hillary Mantel, and Tom Stoppard.

The expenditure was criticised by Oxford SU president Kate Cole, who told Cherwell: “In a time of increasing pressures on budgets of student services we would want to see as much money as possible being spent on developing the student experience and the quality of education.

“We would question whether spending the equivalent of four undergraduates’ tuition fees for the year on a single lunch was value for money”

President of the Oxford University and Colleges Union (UCU), Garrick Taylor, told Cherwell: “Oxford UCU recognises the importance of Encaenia and understands that, like any international event with highly distinguished individuals, the cost will run into thousands.

“We do have concerns about how much money was spent on a single lunch in 2012 and feel that the University should further explain and justify this, especially at a time when pay was being restrained and pension benefits cut.”

A University spokesperson told Cherwell: “Oxford and many other universities around the world believe honorary degrees are an important and appropriate way to publicly recognise and celebrate excellence and achievement across all walks of life.”

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