Oxford colleges played a major role in pushing through the changes to academics’ pensions which have provoked nationwide strikes, according to the University and College Union (UCU).
Analysis of leaked Universities UK (UUK) documents revealed the extent of Oxford University’s desire for reform of the pension scheme.
They show that each Oxbridge college was counted as an individual institution in a survey used to set the policy, potentially giving them disproportionate influence in comparison to other British universities.
The University Superannuation Scheme (USS) – the pension fund at the centre of the dispute – said in its response to a UUK employer consultation that “a significant minority (42%) of survey respondents wanted less risk to be taken – including some of the very largest employers.”
They did not mention that a third of this figure were Oxbridge colleges, some of the very smallest employers.
It is estimated that about 16 colleges were counted in the survey, on top of individual votes by Oxford and Cambridge universities themselves.
A philosophy professor at the London School of Economics, Michael Otsuka, who first raised the issue of Oxbridge’s “inflated” weight in the survey, said the pension changes were “based on a misleading UUK prospectus regarding the level of opposition among employers to investment risk”.
He added: “It should be a special concern for USS members beyond Oxford and Cambridge if these two institutions exercised such disproportionate influence.”
UCU General Secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “It can’t be right that, in a scheme where risk is supposed to be shared between institutions, Oxbridge employers seem to have had a far greater say in the future of the pension scheme than others.
“Vice chancellors at other USS universities should surely question how two universities have been able to manipulate Universities UK’s hardline position in this way.”
She called on vice chancellors at other universities to voice their concerns, rather “than letting the views expressed by a minority of institutions be used to drive through these damaging changes.”
Queen’s College politics lecturer and Labour City Councillor, Dan Iley-Williamson, told Cherwell: “It seems as though Oxford and Cambridge universities have played a shameful role in driving forward the pension cuts, imperilling the pensions of lecturers across the
country and violating all norms of peer solidarity.
“Behind these moves is the creeping marketisation of higher education, which pits universities against one another, dragging us all down. Radical change can’t come soon enough.”
President of Oxford’s UCU branch, Garrick Taylor, told Cherwell: “The colleges aren’t that poor and the University certainly isn’t, so you’re getting into the situation where the richest institutions in the county are pushing for the end of the defined benefit scheme.
“The people who are most able to afford the scheme are pushing for its closure, which is morally unjust.
“A lot of this has been done by management and hasn’t gone through Congregation. It’s been done in our name but it’s not what the majority of our members want, and I’m pretty
sure it’s not what the majority of academic and academic-related employees at Oxford want.”
Cherwell understands that some senior academics have taken matters into their own hands by proposing a debate at congregation – Oxford’s policy-setting body made up of all permanent academic staff.
A fellow in politics at St Edmund’s Hall, Karma Nabulsi, said: “Colleagues here were completely appalled to learn of Oxford’s role in dismantling the pensions system for academics across the country – we should have been consulted.
“We have submitted two resolutions instructing the university to immediately reverse the position Oxford took on pensions risk, and signatures are still flooding in.
“We aim to vote on reversing this at the next congregation before term ends. We understand that Cambridge are doing the same.”
Oxford University Registrar, Ewan McKendrick, sent an email out to all staff on Thursday afternoon, which acknowledged “the anger and sense of betrayal that is felt by many of our colleagues”.
However, he insisted “that Oxford, either on its own or with Cambridge, did not exert disproportionate influence on the process to date.
“As part of a pension scheme with more than 300 member institutions we have a limited ability to influence discussion and outcomes.”
A UUK spokesperson told Cherwell: “Oxbridge colleges didn’t distort the risk position. They are entitled to their view as an employer in the scheme.”