Dons set for showdown with vice chancellor over pensions dispute

Congregation, the university’s governing body, will meet in an attempt by around 150 dons to reverse Oxford’s position on the USS pension scheme

Photo: Simon Desbruslais

Oxford’s striking lecturers are set for a showdown with the vice chancellor, Louise Richardson, this afternoon in an increasingly bitter dispute over pensions, with some accusing her of appearing “patronising and dismissive of staff concerns”.

Congregation, the university’s governing body, will meet at 2pm today in an attempt from around 150 dons to reverse Oxford’s position on the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) that has triggered university staff across the country to go on strike.

But dons have accused senior university administrators of attempting to “block” the debate by encouraging a required 20 members of the Congregation to stand and cancel the meeting.

Emails, seen by Cherwell, show how some faculty heads have sent staff a message from the proctors presenting arguments in favour of suspending the debate.

An email from Helen McShane, interim Deputy Head of the Nuffield Department of Medicine, sets out the “advantages to postponing this debate until the Tuesday of Week 1 of Trinity Term.”

The proctors argue suspending the debate would allow it to be held after the consultation period the USS has opened, would mean members could see the outcome of ongoing negotiations, and “allows more people to reorganise their working diaries to attend such debates.”

“It is clear that this is a very important issue for us all to engage in, and as members of congregation I urge you to do so,” the email says.

UCU organisers claim “word for word copies” of such arguments have been sent by other departments.

The President of Oxford UCU, Garrick Taylor, told Cherwell: “I think rather than expending all this effort on trying to make sure the resolution isn’t heard at a stage where meaningful change can be made to the proposal currently backed by USS, senior management should engage in debate on March 6th in congregation about why it should change its position towards the proposed pension changes and be prepared to have a vote at that time, in order to give staff the best chance of keeping their defined benefit pension.”

Louise Richardson has also faced criticism for her attempts to encourage Congregation members to block the debate on Tuesday. Academics have accused her of a “patronising and dismissive” tone in her second email to Congregation members encouraging them to suspend the debate.

“I fully understand the depth of feeling on this issue but I have to say that I have been disheartened these past few days by the tenor of some of the debate,” Richardson wrote.

“As a university 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 them among ourselves.

“Whatever the decision on the procedural resolution tomorrow, an open discussion will take place. I hope that when it does, we will all remember our responsibility to model to our students how to respond to views they find objectionable and to express our disagreements in a spirit of ‘robust civility.’”

Some staff hit back on social media, describing the email as a “blatant appeal to the free speech brigade”.

Jonathan Healey, a history fellow at Kellogg, said the email “Feels like we’re all getting a telling off from the headmistress!”

Taylor said: “I’ve already had complaints that staff have found this and the previous email patronising and dismissive of staff concerns.”

A demonstration will be held outside the Sheldonian to support the vote reversing Oxford’s position on the USS. “With this vote at Congregation, we hope to reaffirm the common purposes of our University, and universities across the country,” organisers said in a statement.

They added: “It also provides a moment to come together to celebrate Oxford’s most valued and ancient tradition of liberty.”


  1. I find it rather ironic that the VC is trying to appeal to free speech, yet shutting down a debate herself. Yes, free speech is under attack, and yes many of my fellow students don’t understand that we need to defend it wholeheartedly and without exceptions, for how else are we supposed to discover what it true and good? Given the attitudes of the VC, one has to ask if she thinks she’s running for an SU position or something.

    Kind of ironic that this time round it’s the SU defending open debates, free speech and freedom of assembly and association in view of how some sections of it have acted in the past (cough Oxford Students for Life talks cough).

    It leads me to the sad conclusion that both the SU and VC will say they believe in free speech, and yet neither of them actually do. Did they bother reading articles 9-11 and 17 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and if so why are they both ignoring it and de facto supporting a position so right wing that it would be opposed by many Tory Brexiters?

    • Louise has absolutely shot herself in the foot and seriously destroyed and credibility she has on free speech.
      Might I propose to anyone reading this and able to submit motions to congregation that a motion to massively cut Louise’s pay might be in order (if legal), or at least to endorse the idea and recommend it to the relevant body?

      She could afford an 80% pay cut and frankly deserves it when the money should be spent on investing in research, mental health support, bursaries for postgrads, carbon offsets, useful stuff like that rather than a VC who doesn’t care about democracy or human rights. Personally, I think that this tweet from WomCam sums it up extremely well:

      Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson @UniofOxford pretends to care about free speech on campus but has shown her hand through the shameful, anti-democratic shutdown of the Congregation vote on the #USSstrikes She is no sister of ours. #JeezLouise #OurOxOurUni

      Again, this is very funny given that WomCam has been one of the parts of the SU that hasn’t exactly respected free speech itself (but their 15 attendees weren’t enough to stop the Oxford Students for Life event last term, guess they needed another 5 people. 😛 ). One really could not make this up, but haven’t people realised that censorship and underhanded tactics just make people more likely to pay attention to the view being censored and seek it out and that it builds moral support for it? Now let’s make VC salaries under £100,000 again- a pay cut she must take! 😛


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here