The rotten boroughs of the Isis and the Fens

On the implausibility of the Oxford Registrar’s denial of disproportionate Oxbridge influence

In an article in the Guardian entitled ‘Universities strike blamed on vote by Oxbridge colleges’, Richard Adams reports that “the employers’ backing” of “policies resulting in the harsh cuts” to USS pensions “may have been distorted by giving a number of small, wealthy Oxford and Cambridge colleges the same weight in a crucial survey used to set policy as large universities were given”. (Adams’s article arose from two blog posts of mine, linked here and here.)

In response, the Oxford Registrar has written the following in an email to staff:

We also wish to state 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. As Universities UK has today made clear, Oxford and Cambridge votes in no way distorted the result of the UUK Pension Risk survey.

UUK’s only public statement on this matter to date is the following statement from a spokesperson:

Oxbridge votes did not distort the UUK pension risk survey — we consulted more than 350 USS employers, all the USS employers, as we are obliged to do, and took account of all the responses we received.

This bald assertion of lack of distortion, followed by a non sequitur, does not withstand scrutiny.

116 institutions replied to UUK’s survey. According to UUK, Oxbridge Colleges accounted for one third of the 42% of institutions that called for a lower level of risk than USS proposed in its September valuation. Therefore, c. 16 Oxbridge Colleges joined their Universities in calling for a lower level of risk.

If the inclusion of the Oxbridge Colleges in the survey really gave rise to no distortion or disproportionate influence, then the percentage of respondents who called for a lower level of risk would have to remain unchanged at 42% when one excludes Oxbridge Colleges from the survey. But UUK does not make that claim. Moreover, such a claim would be highly implausible, since, incredibly, c. 22 Oxbridge Colleges would have to have accepted USS’s risk proposal (or higher) for the percentage that rejected this level to have remained at 42% when Oxbridge Colleges are excluded. Such a high number would have to have embraced USS’s proposed level of risk in spite of the clear steer towards a lower level of risk they received from officials in their Universities.

Unless and until UUK, Oxford, or Cambridge confirms that so many Colleges embraced USS’s proposed level of risk or higher, one cannot assign their denials of distortion or disproportionate influence any credibility.

Rather than the double-counting of rotten boroughs, institutions should have influence roughly proportional to their number of FTE members in the scheme.

[*] Credit to Richard Adams for drawing the analogy between Oxbridge Colleges and rotten boroughs in this context.

Written by

Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, Logic & Scientific Method, LSE

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