Vice chancellor Louise Richardson has been criticised by senior academics for “basically threatening to shut down the debate” on the controversial reforms of the University Super-annuation Scheme (USS).
They contend that by affirming her opposition to an early discussion on whether to reverse Oxford’s contribution to a Universities UK (UUK) consultation, she is “shutting down the chance to reverse Oxford’s position, which was used by UUK to break up current pensions arrangements of lecturers across the country”.
It comes as strikes continue to disrupt academic teaching and administration at the University, with the walkouts escalating to four days during 8th week.
In an email sent to members of Congregation – Oxford’s policy-setting body made up of all permanent academic staff – the vice chancellor acknowledged how the pension dispute had caused “so much disquiet, distress, and division in our community over the past several days.”
However, she made clear that she did not want a debate on Oxford’s position on the pension reforms to happen this month, as demanded by around 150 academics.
She said that “a number of colleagues have drafted a resolution asking me to suspend the regulations and allow for a meeting of Congregation next Tuesday without the normal notice period.
“Our regulations allow for 20 members of Congregation to submit a resolution to suspend regulations and for that resolution to be negated by 20 members of Congregation standing, once the resolution has been read at the meeting.
“Personally, I don’t think the authors have made a convincing case for having the debate on pensions now, but that is for Congregation to decide.”
This soon met opposition from various academics, who had been pushing for a change in Oxford’s position towards the controversial pension reforms.
Dr Kate Tunstall, a fellow at Worcester College, told Cherwell: “The Vice-Chancellor explains to us that 20 people – we don’t know who – can just stand up at the start of the meeting and reject the first motion, signed in less than two days by 79 members of Congregation, and close down the meeting.
“She [Richardson] adds, ‘but this is for Congregation to decide’. Twenty people blocking a democratic debate of Congregation can be called many things, but democracy is not one of them.”
Resolution organisers said that signatures to the resolutions now number 149, and they are still coming in at a fast pace, especially since the mention of 20 individuals potentially blocking the vote to reverse the pensions position of Oxford.
They are now asking Council to ensure that the names of any such individuals seeking to block the motion should be publicly known, recorded, and published in the Gazette – the weekly term-time magazine recording the internal affairs of the University.
Dr Stuart White, a politics fellow at Jesus College, told Cherwell: “There is a great deal of concern within the University at the University’s position on USS pensions and the lack of
appropriate discussion and consultation in formulating it.
“It is very important that Congregation have the opportunity to restore the voice of university staff on these matters, which are at the centre of what is a national dispute.”
He added: “It is great to see that yesterday Oxford SU voted unanimously to support the resolutions that have been submitted to Congregation.”
In the email, Richardson stressed: “I would like to make clear, however, that I am committed to free and full debate on the issue of the pension changes, and so is Council.
“On 19 March a 64 day national consultation period will open. At that time individual members of USS will be able to go onto the USS website and model the impact of the changes on them personally.
“During this period we will hold a minimum of 12 open meetings across the University to explain the pension changes and to listen to members’ views on the subject.”
She added: “There will be ample opportunity for Congregation to debate the proposed pension changes during Trinity term and before the consultation closes on 22 May.”
The statement was her first on the pension dispute since the strikes began, during which time many other vice chancellors, including Cambridge’s, have made public statements urging a return to talks.
This prompted the “#JeezLouise” hashtag to gain popularity with Oxford students and academics frustrated at her lack of support for the strike.