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October 4th, 2017:

USS pensions update: a conversation and a quote

Last week, I wrote urging you to vote in UCU’s consultative ballot on whether you would be willing to take strike action to safeguard our pensions.   At that time, Southampton UCU had not had any indication from senior management regarding the University’s position on the USS valuation. I hoped that the University would take its responsibility seriously, and perhaps take a position like the University of Sheffield, critically evaluating the methodology and inputs for the valuation.

I have now met and discussed the University’s response with the Vice-Chancellor and President and fellow SUCU exec members met with the Director of Finance and HR team last week. I asked Sir Christopher if he would be willing to give me a quote that I could share with members.  He kindly responded with the following:

Pensions are extremely important to colleagues, and as a University we wish to be able to offer pension schemes which provide the best possible benefits to employees and which remain sustainable well into the future to provide the income we all need in retirement.  We are particularly keen to ensure that employees throughout their career are able to participate in a long term sustainable pension and to be aware of the importance of joining a scheme as early as possible. The current USS scheme is heavily in deficit and the University along with all other institutions who participate in this scheme are making substantial payments to address the huge deficit in addition to the pension contributions, currently of 18% of salary, together with 8% from employees in the scheme. The University has responded to the consultation on the pension scheme and after careful consideration has supported the proposal for a defined contribution (DC) scheme for future benefits because it would provide greater certainty in terms of benefits and would be sustainable whilstgiving more flexibility to all our staff. The scheme’s Trustees will have to satisfy the Pensions Regulator that the scheme is sustainable and that the sector is able to address the growing deficit.  Further increases in employer pension contributions and any increase in deficit payments by employers are simply not affordable and would threaten both the future of the University and that of the pension scheme.

Sir Christopher shares our frustration with the current situation, and so I urged him to work with both the UCU and UUK negotiators to interrogate the valuation methodology and the investment strategy proposed by USS.  I suggested that UCU members here wanted our senior management to take the consultation seriously, and to give serious consideration to the materials made available by UCU.

There are academics who, in the Financial Times, on WONKHE, and elsewhere, have closely criticised USS’s methodology, voicing serious concerns about USS’s flawed assumptions underpinning its valuation. UCU commissioned an independent report from First Actuarial that leaves the USS Trustee’s proposed approach in tatters, concluding:

The USS does not have negative net cash flow and is not likely to have in future (subject to dealing with increasing longevity, as already noted). Cash and short dated investments are not needed to meet net outgo and to protect against forced disinvestment. … Investing to achieve a lower return than indicated increases the probability of requiring further employer contributions, indeed, it makes it certain that more contributions are needed, in direct conflict with Test 2 and the wishes of the employers (p. 15).

I remain troubled by the role of the Pensions Regulator in the process. It would be a travesty if the entire consultation was invalidated by the Trustee’s capitulation to the Pensions Regulator’s views: this would suggest that there was no point to consultation in the first place.  First Actuarial state:

the law does not give TPR a role in the decision making process of an incomplete valuation. We note with concern the comment [in the Valuation] that ‘the trustee has shared its emerging proposals throughout the process with the regulator as well as stakeholders.’ TRP’s objectives are not aligned [my emphasis] with the objectives of the trustee and the employers…. the trustee’s role is to act in the interests of the members and the employers (p. 7).

At the root of the employers’ concerns are the implications of contribution rate rises. While employers are absolutely within their rights to run their business according to their best interests, the First Actuarial report argues that there is no need for contributions to rise – and we would wish both the University and UUK to take this seriously.  Although we understand that the decision has not been made without consideration we feel it is regrettable that the University supports a move to a completely Defined Contributions pension, which seems at odds with its desire to recruit and retain quality staff. First Actuarial has also prepared a report comparing the benefits of USS with TPS, the scheme available to employees in post-1992 universities: in all tests, TPS already outperforms USS. EU universities, too, have occupational pension schemes which hardly make employment in a USS university seem attractive.

Ultimately, members need to bear in mind that USS is a private pension scheme. Its existence depends on participation by its members, and, if we really want it, we now have a choice to leave.  The scheme’s employees are paid for by our pension contributions, and the vast salaries on offer to them make their arguments about the need for prudence and the funding deficits seem frankly distasteful: see the Annual Report, Report and Accounts (scheme), p. 25 – a mean average base salary of £63K pa, 113 members paid over £100K pa, with the top earner taking home in excess of £1.6m pa.  We know that the employers are just one of three sides negotiating in the room – well, four, if you count the éminence grise of The Pensions Regulator – but we have no direct way of putting pressure on USS, so we must put pressure on the employers, instead.

There is no doubt, either in my mind or in that of the Vice-Chancellor, that a dispute would be damaging – but that is in the nature of industrial disputes.  We want UUK, USS, and The Pensions Regulator to be in no doubt that we abhor the devaluation of our pensions – what we used to call our deferred salary. They represented a covenant between the sector and its workers that we could accept lower wages than could be commanded in the private sector on the understanding that we would be looked after well in retirement.

We will be holding a General Meeting on 24 October, after the UCU consultative ballot has closed.  In the meantime, we continue to urge you to vote in the ballot: if you have not received your ballot email, or have lost it, you can get another here. We strongly recommend that you vote YES, that you are prepared to take industrial action to save our pensions.  Let those who will decide our future hear our voice.

Sincerely,
Your UCU branch president,
Laurie