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Dons set for showdown with vice chancellor over pensions dispute

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.”

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