OUP fights corner in poetry row

February 12, 1999

Oxford University Press launched a counter-offensive last week after culture minister Alan Howarth's attack on it for dropping its poetry list.

Mr Howarth, a junior minister in the department of culture, media and sport, described the press as "barbaric" and queried its charitable status - which means it is not taxed on its surpluses or "profits". Dropping the poetry list was evidence of an "erosion of standards".

But Henry Reece, OUP chief executive, said the charges were "bizzare" considering the press publishes more than 4,000 titles each year, including hundreds of monographs. The OUP also spends Pounds 5 million a year on new editions of The Oxford English Dictionary and The New Dictionary of National Biography - "a scale of scholarly subvention that would be quite inconceivable to any other publisher," he said.

Founded in 1586, the OUP is the biggest university press in the world. It is a "department" of the University of Oxford rather than a spin-off company. Last year it had a turnover of Pounds 280 million, generating a surplus of Pounds 13 million, of which Pounds 6 million was diverted to the university. The press also made a Pounds 20 million one-off payment to the university from its reserve fund.

Caroline Pailing, OUP public affairs manager, said the decision to end the poetry list, launched in the 1960s, was "painful but necessary ... it has never even faintly threatened Faber's primacy in this area. It has been losing money for years".

To insist OUP continue to publish contemporary poetry was "to invite it to subsidise creative writing, to behave as if it were an outlying department of the Arts Council," she said. "This is not the remit of a university press. Writing poetry is a valuable activity but it is not an academic one."

Ms Pailing said the closure had nothing to do with the OUP's charitable status. "It has that status because it supports the university's objective through publishing academic and educational works," she said.

If the press became a spin-off company it would make it more difficult to invest in projects such as Oxford Medieval Texts and Oxford English Texts, which, though highly valuable academically, are unlikely ever to produce a financial return.

Cambridge University Press has a similar relationship to the host university and also enjoys charitable status. Founded in 1534, the CUP is the oldest university press in the world. Over the past ten years it has paid Pounds 32 million to the university. Its turnover in 1997-98 was Pounds 103 million and it generated a surplus of Pounds 6.9 million. Of this, Pounds 4.5 million was handed over to the university while Pounds 2.4 million was retained for internal investment.

CUP financial director James Berry said the press is exempt from tax in Britain and in all countries where it has branches, including the United States, Australia and South Africa. "Over 70 per cent of our publications are exported - we won the Queen's Award for Export achievement last year. If we lost our overseas tax exemption, much of our publishing would be non-viable."

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