Oxford bond issue a boost for UK unis in uncertain time

This article is more than 12 months old

LONDON The success of Oxford University's US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) bond, the first in its 1,000-year history, is good news for Britain's top academic institutions at a time of anxiety over Brexit-related funding shortfalls and calls to scrap student tuition fees.

The 100-year bond, launched on Dec 1 with a 2.5 per cent coupon, has taken the market for deals for UK universities and colleges to a new level, on a par with big US names such as Harvard and Yale.

Technically, the bond was the biggest from any university in the world.

Buying interest equaled US$2 billion or double its face value.

The day after its launch, it was among the top 20 traded issues in the whole of Europe, according to Trax, a subsidiary of debt trading platform MarketAxess.

That is cause for celebration for peers contemplating bond sales, even if their credit scores are less impressive than Oxford's gold-plated triple-A rating.

It's an uncertain time for Britain's academic institutions.

The cost of student tuition fees, which make up almost half of UK universities' revenues, has been catapulted to the top of the political agenda by young voters who deserted Britain's ruling Conservative party in a snap election in June.

Universities expect these fees - currently £9,250 (S$16,6152) a year - to be reviewed in the new year, meaning they are unlikely to rise further and could even be cut.

"I think the whole higher education sector is worried about the debate around tuition fees," Oxford's pro-vice-chancellor for planning and resources David Prout said after the bond sale earlier this month.

Some 36 British universities, including University College London, Edinburgh, Swansea, Bangor, Newcastle and Oxford, have borrowed almost 3 billion euros (S$4.7 billion) from the European Investment Bank (EIB) over the last decade to fund campus upgrades.

But unless EU treaties are amended, Britain will have to leave the EIB after Brexit.