Oxford bond debut success shows UK universities another course

Some 36 British universities, including University College London and Oxford, have borrowed almost €3 billion ($3.52 billion) from the EIB over the past decade to fund campus upgrades. (Reuters)
Updated 17 December 2017
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Oxford bond debut success shows UK universities another course

LONDON: The success of Oxford University’s
$1 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 percent coupon, has taken the market for deals for UK universities and colleges to a new level on a par with such big US names as Harvard and Yale.
Technically, the bond was the biggest from any university in the world. Buying interest equalled $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. The oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford topped a global ranking by The Times newspaper for the first time last year.
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 ($12,424) 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 told Reuters after the bond sale earlier this month.
Britain’s plan to leave the EU in March 2019 is also weighing heavily.
UK universities are already finding it harder to attract and retain EU-born students and staff, with official figures showing undergraduate course applications from EU students fell 7 percent this year.
The other countries in the EU send around 58,000 students, or 8 percent of undergraduates and 15 percent of postgraduate students, to the Russell Group comprising 24 top-tier universities in the UK. Around 25,000 of their staff come from other EU countries, too.
Once Britain leaves, these institutions could also lose their places on EU-funded research projects after 2020.
A big worry is how Brexit will affect the UK’s ability to borrow from the European Investment Bank, UK universities’ biggest source of lending.
The bank, the EU’s main development lender, stopped support in March after London triggered the Article 50 clause to formally start the EU withdrawal process.
Some 36 British universities, including University College London, Edinburgh, Swansea, Bangor, Newcastle and Oxford, have borrowed almost €3 billion ($3.52 billion) from the EIB over the past decade to fund campus upgrades.
That’s more than any other country and almost double the amounts that went to Germany and France.
Last year alone, the EIB lent €671 million to UK universities.
But unless EU treaties are amended, Britain will have to leave the EIB after Brexit.
“This (EIB funding) is an area where people (at universities) feel there might be changes, so they are looking at the option of the public and private placement markets,” said Dominic Kerr, managing director of Debt Capital Markets for HSBC.
Kerr has helped launch seven of the eight public bonds that have so far been issued by UK universities, including the first by Cambridge in 2012.
Kerr estimates there have been around 50 market-based funding deals for UK universities and individual colleges in total if “private placements” — bonds offered directly to a just one or a few investors — are included.
Fraser Dixon, JP Morgan’s executive director for UK & Ireland debt capital markets, said he had several interested calls after his bank arranged the Oxford bond.
“Having seen what is able to be achieved in the markets and with the EIB possibly disappearing as an option, I think other institutions will be considering their options,” Dixon said.
“The bond markets are offering greater capacity and longer-dated money than the EIB traditionally has.”
Many still hope EIB funding will not vanish altogether.
An EU-UK “divorce deal” outline published last week specifically stated: “The UK considers that there could be mutual benefit from a continuing arrangement between the UK and the EIB,” and that it wanted to “explore” the possibilities.
The EIB does lend to non-EU universities in countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, and the group is mulling an offshoot that would include the UK, sources have told Reuters.
“Looking ahead, if there were to be clarity on the future relationship with the UK, let’s see, but from our side we would happily look at supporting higher education in the years ahead,” an EIB source said.
— REUTERS


US pushes sanctions to send Putin message on election interference

Updated 7 min 40 sec ago
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US pushes sanctions to send Putin message on election interference

WASHINGTON: A pair of prominent Republican US senators said on Sunday that the United States needs to prepare new sanctions against Russia to discourage interference in upcoming elections.
Senator Lindsey Graham said additional sanctions must be teed up before President Donald Trump holds a second meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the US leader came under heavy criticism for failing to confront Putin about interference in the 2016 election at a summit last Monday.
“You need to work with Congress to come up with new sanctions because Putin’s not getting the message,” Graham said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We need new sanctions, heavy-handed sanctions, hanging over his head, and then meet with him.”
Undaunted by the backlash in his own party to his first meeting, Trump invited Putin to a White House meeting sometime this fall. Congressional midterm elections will take place in November.
Senator Marco Rubio wants a vote on a bill called DETER that would impose new sanctions if US intelligence officials determine Russia meddled in US elections. Rubio co-authored the legislation with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, a bipartisan effort revived by the fallout of last week’s summit.
“What I think is indisputable is that they did interfere and they will do so in the future,” Rubio said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“If our bill passes and the director of national intelligence says they interfered in 2018, these very tough sanctions will hit them. So Putin knows going in, what the price of doing so is.”
Putin has denied that Russia tried to influence the 2016 presidential election after the US intelligence community concluded Russia interfered through cyberattacks and social media in a bid to boost Trump’s candidacy.
Under pressure from Congress, which last year passed a tough sanctions law targeting Russia, the US Treasury in April imposed sanctions on Russian officials and oligarchs for election meddling and “malign” activities.
The DETER Act would make sanctions more automatic. The US director of national intelligence would be required to conclude if any foreign nations interfered in elections one month after Americans cast their votes, triggering strict sanctions within 10 days if interference was detected.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week identified the bill as a potential step Congress could take in the coming days to push back against Russia as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for sanctions and other deterrents.
But the US oil and gas industry is lobbying against the bill due to worries that heightened sanctions could impact US investments in Russia, congressional sources said.