VC charged USyd more than $10k for personal Oxford and Cambridge Club membership

Michael Spence shifted his personal membership to the exclusive social Club onto the University’s dime during his tenure as VC, saving himself eight years of fees.

Former Vice-Chancellor (VC) Michael Spence charged the University of Sydney $10,484.46 over eight years for membership fees to the exclusive Oxford and Cambridge Club in London. 

Spence first charged the University for membership in 2013, and continued to do so for the remainder of his tenure, which ended in 2020. 

Yearly membership to the Oxford and Cambridge Club costs £1,550 ($2,732.75) for a resident of London, or £1,033 ($1,821.24) for members residing overseas.

Exactly why Spence was allowed to charge the University for his membership fees is unclear, and seems to contravene USyd’s own expense policy. USyd policy classifies memberships to “fitness clubs, golf clubs or other bodies that are not required to carry out University business” as “personal expenses” that are not allowed to be expensed to the University. 

When asked to justify Spence’s membership, a spokesperson for the University simply stated “club membership and subscriptions are claimed and approved with consideration of relevance to the role”.

The documents released to Honi indicate the expenses were approved by then Chief Financial Officer, Mark Easson, but the specific justification for the expenses is currently unknown.

When Spence first charged the University for membership fees in 2013, he did not pay the Club’s stipulated joining fee. The absence of this fee suggests Spence was a member of the Club before he began claiming the cost against the University. In this case, Spence shifted a personal financial commitment that he was already paying onto the University’s dime, seemingly to save himself more money at the cost of USyd.

The released documents also indicate Spence’s membership to the Club was in a personal capacity, rather than as a representative of the University. The Club offers those “holding appointments at any institution of higher education” a distinct category of ‘University Membership’ compared to regular alumni. The documents reveal that Spence’s status was a regular ‘Overseas Member’.

Spence, by the time his term ended, was raking in $1.6 million per year in salary, super and bonuses from USyd. 

The Oxford and Cambridge Club’s sheer opulence makes it even more difficult to rationalise the alleged necessity of its cost to the University. Founded in 1830 and right next door to St James’ Palace, the exclusive social club is reserved for alumni of Oxford and Cambridge and is home to various politicians and royalty, including the Queen of Denmark, the Prince of Wales, and the former Duke of Edinburgh, as well as celebrities like Stephen Fry. 

The Club is highly selective – to be considered for “election to membership”, a candidate must be proposed and seconded by existing members before being evaluated by a selection committee. 

The Club’s facilities include dining rooms, two bars, two squash courts, a billiard room, a library with over 20,000 books, and more than 40 five-star standard rooms equipped with “Egyptian cotton” sheets. 

Members are bound by strict dress regulations: “Gentlemen are required to wear a tailored jacket, tie and fully button-fronted shirt, fastened at the collar… Gentlemen who remove their jackets pursuant to Rule 38 must wear long-sleeved shirts fastened at the cuff… Shorts, sweatshirts, fleeces, tracksuits and t-shirts are never acceptable.” 

While Spence enjoyed the luxury of the Oxford and Cambridge Club, he simultaneously presided over unprecedented austerity measures at USyd, resulting in widespread course cuts and job losses. Instead of going to perhaps the most lavish social club in the world, the  $10,484.46 the University directed towards covering his membership fees might have been better spent on student welfare, paying academics properly, or even a much-needed Opal card for Belinda Hutchinson.