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USS Pension

Your pension in their hands

Amanda, our branch administrator, explains the importance of the proposed changes to our pensions

You may have noticed exec members on early morning missions last week, trying to get the vote out in UCU’s consultative ballot over action to preserve our pensions.  And the maelstrom surrounding the USS pension valuation seems to be strengthening, even since the discussion we had with senior management at the October JNC.

At the meeting we were shown a draft press release explaining in more detail the University’s response to the employers’ consultation, which we assume will be forthcoming soon.

Over the weekend more information has emerged about political meddling in the valuation, that goes beyond even the Pension Regulator’s letter to USS, published in the Financial Times on Friday. Henry Tapper, one of First Actuarial (UCU’s auditors) blogged about the whole sorry business yesterday – showing that Frank Field (Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee), the Pensions Regulator, UUK, and USS have been involved in correspondence over the summer, trying to shore up all their individual interests in the matter.  As Henry points out, though, the only missing voice in this conversation is ours – the future pensioners.

Mike Otsuka, one of UCU’s most active pensions experts, is advocating a way out of this conundrum, that has the ideological support from the actuarial working for both UUK and UCU: a scheme that relies on discretionary targets rather than promises that he explains here.

UCU members have until 18 October to vote in the consultative 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.  If you are not yet a member of UCU, you still have time to join, and to vote in the ballot: click here to join online, or for information on how you can join over the phone.

We are holding a General Meeting on 24 October at Highfield, after the UCU consultative ballot has closed. Mike Otsuka has supplied us with some materials, and we are trying to arrange for an additional speaker.  We understand that some members at outlying campuses may not be able to attend, so we will do what we can to help: we can certainly circulate the meeting materials, and if you can help us with room booking, we will do our best to come to you.


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.

Your UCU branch president,

Today’s general meeting

Thank you all for coming to today’s General Meeting in building 45. I hope you found it interesting and useful. This has been a busy week for your branch committee; events in Modern Languages have been moving quickly.

I have uploaded the slides from the meeting, complete with the motions as amended. Please:

  • continue to let Amanda know any information you find out about changes to working practices, or anything else you think important;
  • tell us how you got on with the new L4-6 appraisal. Was teaching given due prominence?
  • Think about coming to UCU Congress as a delegate, and
  • prepare to take action to support our pay claim.

Remember that changes to USS pensions and National Insurance will cost you money this year. Colleagues in the Final Salary scheme will pay 0.5% more; newer colleagues in CRB will pay an extra 1.5%. And you will lose about a further £500 in NI payments. So, if we don’t receive at least a 2% pay rise, many of us will actually be paid less in the coming year.

Denis Nicole
Branch President

Summer casework: why we all need to be in UCU

Over the summer, we have been approached by several university employees who have needed independent support and advice. The University regulations allow union caseworkers to support employees in a variety of situations, and generally the independent support provided by union is very well received. In some cases, they were long-standing employees who had just joined the union because of their problem. In others, they were non-members who approached us asking “if I join, what can you do for me?” Yet other non-members asked if they should hire a lawyer.

These approaches all suffer from a lack of understanding of the university’s (and most other employers’) processes. Let’s deal with them one by one.

Can I join if I have a problem?
Yes, you are very welcome to join at any time. The union would, however, be completely unable to balance its books, or supply volunteer caseworkers, if large numbers of staff were allowed to join, and pay membership, only while they have an employment issue. The union’s legal service imposes a strict, but short, waiting period on new members before offering support. Similarly, within the branch, we are unlikely to be able to offer support for pre-existing issues with new members.

If I join, what can you do for me?
As I say above, we can support you with your next problem. We may be able to offer informal local assistance with your current difficulties. All the while, you will be helping to improve pay and conditions for all of us.

Should I get a lawyer?
This is the big misconception. A lawyer will be of almost no use to you until it is too late. You can take your problem to him or her, and they can offer you advice. But they cannot accompany you either to an investigation or to a disciplinary hearing. You will be on your own. And they probably will not know much about local conditions at the university. Your lawyer can come to an employment tribunal, but by then, after you have been sacked, it is almost certainly too late. Even if you win, you will almost certainly not be reinstated. The chances of winning are about fifty-fifty; if you win, you can expect a cash settlement of perhaps several thousand pounds, but no job to go back to.

Almost all of the good outcomes we achieve for members are the result of dedicated work by our trained team of volunteer caseworkers. They meet with members and come to investigation and disciplinary meetings. Their accreditation training is supplemented by wide experience of what actually happens at Southampton. And, within the limits of confidentiality, they share experiences at regular meetings. In most cases, we are able to prevent problems escalating. For the more intractable cases we can call on paid union professionals, who (unlike lawyers) are also entitled to come with you to meetings. Finally, if all else fails, we are able to offer support at a tribunal. But, as I said, by then it is probably too late to keep your job. Here is what the university writes:

The member of staff has the right, if they wish, to be accompanied by a workplace colleague or a trade union representative.

The representative/companion is permitted to address the hearing in order to put forward the member of staff’s case; they can sum up the case and respond on their behalf to any view expressed at the hearing.

The representative/companion is also permitted to confer with the member of staff during the hearing.

It should be noted that the representative/companion has no right to answer questions on behalf of the member of staff, to address the hearing if the member of staff does not wish him or her to do so, or to prevent the employer explaining its case.

Representatives/companions have an important role to play in supporting a member of staff and are allowed to participate as fully as possible.

There are other important reasons for you to be in the union. If, say, a student complains about you, you will be judged according to the university’s policies. University HR won’t be much help; their role is to protect the institution, not the individual. If the policies are unfair, you don’t have much hope. We are a recognised trade union, and the university has to negotiate these policies with us before adopting them. We are able to use our experience of casework to develop policies which work for both university and staff. Our effectiveness depends on how seriously we are taken by the university; we have far more influence when we have a high membership. Indeed, for matters affecting only level seven staff (Professors, etc.), we are not yet recognised and the university declines formal negotiation. So, if you join as soon as you arrive here, you are helping to protect yourself from policies that might later be used against you.

Finally, we negotiate, and occasionally go into national dispute, over pay and pensions. We improved the employers offers on each in the last round of changes. The current round of pay negotiations is under way and pensions are again under threat. We need your support now.

Join here.
† See Struck Out, by David Renton.

Denis Nicole

Flexible retirement: get it while you still can

I wrote about flexible retirement a while back. Several of us have been able to take an 80% flex, and collect our USS pension, without difficulty over the past couple of years. It seems that now, however, management attitudes are starting to harden. We have heard rumours that Welsh universities have been denying flexible retirement; now we have an example of Southampton making it more difficult than it should be. Guidelines have been circulated in FPSE that

FEG would expect staff with no research funding to retain teaching commitment

In other words, however much you retire, you will still be doing a full FTE of teaching. I think that is unreasonable. And surely it is research quality, not funding, that should drive decisions? The guidance also carries the unsavoury implication that teaching is an activity which colleagues have to be pressured into doing; how will that benefit students or deliver better NSS scores?

If you are thinking about flexing, it would a be good idea get in touch with the union before starting negotiations.

† I love this term. It seems that, whenever the university wants to create policies without bothering to negotiate with the recognised trade unions, they call them “guidelines”.

Denis Nicole

My response to the USS consultation

Here is what I wrote.

Denis Nicole.

Things an individual can do to maximise their pension

The new changes to our USS pension are very unattractive. There are, however, several things you can do to improve your position at retirement. Here are the ones of which I am aware:

  • Get into a scheme with better inflation protection. The TPS pension, offered by Post-92 Universities has inflation protection at CPI+1.6%; this roughly keeps up with average pay. Currently (but not for long) USS is in the Public Sector Transfer Arrangements, which allow you to transfer your existing USS pension rights into TPS or, for example, the NHS scheme. As shown in my previous post, this really protects your benefits. The downside is that you will probably have to change jobs. I guess you could, for example, move to Solent.
  • Retire a bit. If you were employed and at least 55 on 1st October 2011, you can retire at 60 without penalty. This is a big deal; if you didn’t meet the age cut-off, your pension would be reduced by about 20% for the rest of your life. The really attractive thing to do is to retire 20% (go to a four-day week and, like me, don’t come in on Fridays) and collect 80% of the pension. If you’ve been here a while, you will find that your overall pay goes up, while you work shorter hours. You continue to accrue pension (at 8/10 rate) and when you finally retire you can collect this and your remaining 20%. An added advantage is that your pension is calculated not on your last year’s pay, but on the best three of your last thirteen years, corrected for inflation. If you’ve been at the top of a scale for a while, your pay has not been keeping up with inflation and you will have a pensionable salary which is more than you have ever earned. An unmissable deal.
  • Pay cash AVCs. The Prudential AVCs give a reasonable return but that’s not the real point. They are a way of deferring and eliminating income tax. Money you pay in is paid before tax. You can later take out 25% of the cash value of your pension tax-free. You can take all the rest out too (there is no longer an annuity obligation) and pay tax only at your post-retirement tax rate. Even better, if you have a retirement pension, the total value of your pot is calculated as twenty times your pension plus all the cash (AVCs and USS lump sum); you can take up to 25% of this entire pot tax-free. This right will be lost for future AVCs after April 2016. You should set up AVCs before collecting any pension; the government doesn’t like to see pension money recycled.
  • Don’t forget the various bits of state pension and any other occupational pensions you may have.
  • You don’t ever have to retire. Keep your job as long as you want, and can do, it.
  • Get married to somebody young. USS will pay them for life after you die. Kids (potentially up to age 23) get paid too.

There are a couple of other important benefits which I hope will not affect you.

  • Ill health retirement. If you think this might affect you, do not resign. It is a complicated matter and you need UCU and USS advice before taking any action. If you have only a small pension, your family will be much better off if you stay employed and die “in service”. Resignation also seriously harms your chances of getting an enhanced pension through ill health retirement.
  • You should fill out the “nomination” form from USS. This will ensure that, in the event of your death, your dependent will get some money right away. If you don’t, there will likely be a delay and they might have to pay probate costs before receiving anything.

Denis Nicole

USS Pension Consultation

The formal USS consultation on the revised pension closes in two days time this Friday. Please take advantage of your opportunity to respond. They don’t make it easy (they wouldn’t, would they); you need your USS member number and your National Insurance Number. You will be able to find your member number on any official USS correspondence, including the invitation to respond, or you can call University extension 22445 and ask. You then go to this web page ( and sign in. Realistically, comments at this formal stage can only affect details of the proposed scheme; we have already reached (reluctant) agreement about the core of the changes.

I’d caution you about using the various benefit calculators; I have seen three (UCU, UCEA, USS) and they all make different fragile assumptions.

The hard core of what has been imposed on us is the  inadequate inflation protection. They call it USS inflation and it is slightly worse than CPI (with restrictions above 5%). The graph below should explain the problem. It’s based on ONS figures and only goes back to 1989, as that’s the first date of official CPI numbers.
USS_inflationClick on it if you need a bigger version.

You can see the problem at a glance. If we had no career advancement and no annual increments, we would expect our pay to rise at the same rate as average annual pay in the UK. Thus even without annual increments or promotion, we would expect the 1/80th of a £20,000 salary that we earned in 1989 to be worth £650 if it were based on final salary, as average pay has multiplied by a factor of 2.6 over the period. In contrast, USS inflation (capped CPI) has only multiplied by a factor of 1.88 over the period, so even with the improved 1/75 accrual rate, you only get a pension of £501 twenty-five years later. You lose even without taking account of career progression. The teachers, in TPS, have negotiated inflation protection of CPI+1.6%; this roughly keeps up with average pay.

Why did the teachers get a better deal? Perhaps because of greater Union strength and militancy. The sad reality is that our scheme is supposed to be fully funded; there is meant to be enough money in it to pay our pensions. That allows the government pensions regulator, the USS staff, and the USS trustees (typically from the banking and government sectors) to impose very conservative actuarial assumption to force down benefits. They have even adopted de-risking which is banking-talk for deliberately selecting worse-performing investments which make the deficit bigger. And they have imposed a defined contribution section because, in their language, it is risk-free. It’s risk-free because we take all the risk. The teacher’s scheme, on the other hand, has no money at all, so they don’t have any actuarial rules to follow.

So what can you usefully say in your response? Feel free to rehearse the sad story above, but I doubt you’ll get far. I would concentrate on the defined contribution component, and address a couple of key issues:

  • The new USS is a very complex hybrid scheme. There is legacy final salary, legacy added years AVC, Prudential AVC, CRB, DB (with optional extra matched and unmatched contributions) and possibly a further cash purchase AVC option. This all gives the scheme staff an opportunity to spend money and impose fees. Insist that the fees on the DB parts of the scheme be kept low, well below the current 0.84% average as we are a very big scheme which should be very efficient.
  • All the risk in the DB part is carried by us, the members. So we (not the trustees) should be able to select the range of investment vehicles on offer. A member-led panel should be created for the purpose. We are likely to want various sorts of ethical and low-fees funds.

Here are some other suggested responses:

Denis Nicole

UCU Elections

You should all have received Electoral Reform Services ballots for the UCU elections. It is very important that you vote now; your ballot must be received by this Friday 27th February. There is something of a power-struggle in UCU between the “hard” Left (who seem to be associated with the old Socialist Workers Party) and the “mainstream” (who sometimes call themselves the Independent Broad Left). Currently, the Higher Education Committee and the other principal negotiators are led by the “mainstream” and I personally think they are doing a pretty good job under difficult circumstances. When I vote, I take care not to vote for UCULeft-backed candidates; I think they are divisive and tend to pursue wider political objectives to the detriment of our members’ interests. But that’s just me; you should, of course, make up your own minds. But VOTE. None of us are happy with the USS settlement; it is indeed a worse deal than the one the teachers and post-92’s managed for TPS. This is not, as commonly assumed, because of the accrual rate: our lump sum roughly compensates for their faster accrual. The difference is that the teachers managed to negotiate much better inflation protection. They get CPI+1.6%. We get CPI+0%, subject to some additional caps. We did, however, push the employers further than USS and the Government wanted to go. Getting any more would have required us to force, through industrial action, a government back-down. Could we have done that? I doubt it; our industrial strength is limited. We have four problems:

  • We don’t have enough members. Southampton is one of the bigger branches, but membership is nothing like universal. Could we “bring the University to its knees”?
  • Our members can be reluctant to take action. That’s a pity. Effective industrial action requires a membership who will act as a well-disciplined army; all must be willing to turn action on and off at short notice as required by the ebb and flow of negotiations.
  • Our house is divided; the hard left spends congress sniping at the leadership elected by the majority of members. Congress decreases our credibility amongst employers.
  • Unlike tube train drivers and teachers (parents have to stay home from work), action by university staff does not have an immediate impact on the general population.

The first paragraph might sound a bit hostile to the hard left. I’m particularly cross with them right now as they have exploited UCU’s rules (it only needs twenty branches to call one) to force a Special Sector Conference in Manchester tomorrow, and three of us have to spend the day there to vote against motions criticising our elected leadership. Apart from the public embarrassment—some at USS and EPF must be laughing—our membership fees are being frittered away on travelling expenses, probably about £200 each for 120 delegates, and booking a room at the Britannia Hotel. I’d guess an overall cost around £30,000.

Denis Nicole, Branch VP.

Commentary on the USS ballot

Several letters have been published about the on-going ballot.

…and please vote by Monday!

Denis Nicole,

Branch Vice-President