Fellows and bursars have come under fire for responding to a survey without consulting their colleges, with no indication of how the UUK accounted for the dubious nature of their submissionsLouis Ashworth

Nearly a month after allegations of collusion between Cambridge colleges in the ongoing pension dispute surfaced, students and staff remain in the dark about the role Cambridge’s colleges played in the ongoing pensions dispute.

Just over half of the Oxbridge colleges involved have come forward about their responses to a September consultation by the employers’ body Universities UK (UUK), amid near-silence from UUK itself, despite numerous information requests.

While staff strikes have disrupted teaching for the past month, anger has been directed at some colleges who were able to take what has in retrospect transpired to be a potentially major decision, without consulting college fellowships or governing bodies and relying solely on a bursar or senior member’s decision.

The pressure for transparency is mounting

The pressure for transparency is mounting. Earlier this month, the master of Churchill, Professor Dame Athene Donald, echoed growing calls for the UUK to reveal how it weighted responses received from universities nationwide to a survey sent out last September. “Transparency is necessary if trust in the dialogue is to be rebuilt,” Donald wrote. “Currently the lack of clarity on these questions – as indeed on many others – is destabilising the entire sector to everyone’s cost.”

Explained What is the UUK’s September 2017 valuation, and why does it matter?

Every three years, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – a national pension scheme for employees in higher education at pre-1992 universities – carries out a valuation of the employers and employees’ contribution levels to pension schemes. The ongoing national pensions dispute, which has seen industrial strike action in 65 universities, including Cambridge, surrounds the 2017 valuation, for which the USS must submit a pensions scheme approved by the employers’ body UUK and employees’ union, the University and College Union (UCU) before 30th June.

The UUK was consulted on a funding proposal last year, for which it sent out a survey to employers asking whether they thought taking on the maximum level of investment risk inherent in the proposed scheme was appropriate.

The survey question related to employers’ preferred levels of risk was: “Does your institution support the level of risk (i.e. level of reliance being placed on the employer covenant) being proposed by the USS trustee for this valuation?”, where reliance, defined by the USS, refers to the difference between the assets held at a given point in time and those assets required to allow the scheme to be self-sufficient.

Out of the 350 institutions to which surveys were sent out, 116 responded, representing 92% of USS membership. 53% of respondents accepted the level of risk proposed; 42% wanted less risk to be taken, and 5% wanted more risk to be taken.

At least 16 Oxbridge colleges were among the 42% who indicated they wanted less risk to be taken. Only 3 other colleges responded to the survey responding otherwise.

Following the consultation, UUK met with UCU through a Joint Negotiation Committee (JNC), alongside independent chair Sir Andrew Cubie, to discuss the funding proposal. Both UCU and UUK put forth distinct reform proposals, but no joint proposal was tabled. The chair sided with the UUK, triggering UCU strike action.

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So far, 12 Cambridge colleges have revealed that they responded to the valuation, with eight confirming that they responded calling for less risk to be taken by employers. 17 have confirmed they made no submission, with several citing the short timeframe for response precluding the possibility of consulting their respective governing bodies. Two have not yet made any response to information requests from Varsity or members of the public.

  • King’s and Churchill have both released statements calling for the “greatest possible transparency” from the UUK amid growing concerns from their college fellowships.
  • Seven colleges out of the eight which confirmed they called for less risk to be taken have released statements stressing that the submissions were made by a fellow or bursar, and were not representative of the college’s stance.
  • Three colleges – Homerton, Sidney Sussex and Corpus Christi – did not provide a copy of their response when asked to, claiming that they made an online submission for which they kept no records.

At Oxford, just one college – Hertford – is publicly known to have responded calling for less risk to be taken, but has since formally withdrawn its entire response.

Nine colleges have come forward about the detail of their responses – eight from Cambridge and one from Oxford

Out of the 16 Oxbridge colleges which are known to have responded to the UUK survey calling for less risk, making up one-third of the employers calling on the UUK to put forth the pensions proposal which has triggered the ongoing national dispute, only nine have come forward about the detail of their responses – eight from Cambridge and one from Oxford.

The limited information available has been a long time coming. Varsity contacted all Cambridge’s colleges almost a month ago, on 21st February, asking how they responded to UUK’s September consultation. This was alongside extensive, separate information requests made by members of the Cambridge UCU and Dr Neil Davies, a research fellow at the University of Bristol.

Which colleges responded to the UUK consultation?

King’s Responded calling for less risk, requested transparency

The first bursar at King’s responded to the September consultation calling for less risk to be taken, though, in a statement released on 2nd March, the College wrote that his response “was not, and should not have been taken as, the considered view of the College”, noting that this was made clear in the bursar’s response. They added: “The views of many Fellows lean in a contrary direction.”

The fellowship of King’s also unanimously agreed at a meeting on Thursday, 15th March, to call for “the greatest possible transparency regarding valuation methodologies” and extend the Pensions Regulator’s deadline for the USS to submit a scheme – currently set for 30th June – if necessary to allow negotiations to continue.

Churchill Did not respond, requested transparency

The Master of Churchill, Athene Donald, sent an email to Jarvis on 8th March “to seek clarification of the role played by the responses of Oxbridge Colleges” in the September consultation, and calling for the UUK to answer several questions:
1) How were the responses from different institutions weighted? Was the weight based on numbers of employees and pensioners, University financial position, or some other set of criteria?
2) How were non-authorised responses weighted compared with those for which there has been full consultation?
3) What weight was given to replies from non UUK institutions (such as Oxbridge Colleges) compared with those from UUK employers?
UUK’s head responded to the questions on Sunday (see below).

Corpus Christi Responded calling for less risk

Corpus Christi responded to Varsity’s request for information stating that they responded to the consultation in line with the Pensions Sub-committee, thus advocating “a strong move towards [Defined Contribution schemes] now”, but could not provide a copy of their response as it was submitted via an online form and no copies were kept. The response was not formally approved by the governing body, though it was not mandatory to consult with them.

Fitzwilliam Responded calling for less risk

The College noted in a statement dated 9th March that its submission made clear: “this response represents the opinion of the College bursar regarding what the College is expected to conclude when the matter is debated next Term".

Homerton Responded

Homerton responded to an FOI request stating that its response was given via an online form which did not provide a copy of the answers provided, despite other colleges keeping records of how they responded. They have not replied to further queries about whether they called for less risk, and if the submission represented the official view of the institution.

Hughes Hall Responded

The college bursar confirmed to the Cambridge UCU that it responded to the consultation.

Jesus Responded calling for less risk, requested transparency

The college submitted what was deemed a “partial response” in a statement from 12th March, and its governing body was not consulted in the decision-making process. The college, furthermore, called for the UUK to be contacted “to query the status of the College’s partial response” to the 2017 valuation.

Magdalene Responded

The college bursar confirmed in an email to a member of the Cambridge UCU that they responded to the September 2017 valuation.

Pembroke Responded calling for less risk

The college’s finance manager responded to the survey in consultation with the bursar and finance secretary with “a balanced position”, according to a college statement on 14th March. They called for less risk, but only after assessing the effects on benefits. However, the finance manager stated that the consultation was received out of term and completed without consulting the governing body.

Sidney Responded calling for less risk

A fellow of the College responded. In a statement published on 15th March, the College stressed that it was not an institutional view, which had been stated by the fellow concerned.

St Catharine’s Responded calling for less risk

One fellow of the college’s governing body responded to the consultation, though the college noted in a statement released on 6th March that the fellow indicated they could not speak for the college as its governing body had yet to discuss the matter.

Gonville & Caius Responded calling for less risk

The college bursar submitted a response, but made it clear that the opinions expressed were his personal view and that it was not possible to consult the council. A statement on the college website noted, however, that the college council has “always maintained a neutral position” on the pensions dispute.

Did not respond:
Clare Hall
Murray Edwards
St Edmund’s
St John’s
Trinity Hall

Lucy Cavendish

The requests for information followed public outcry against alleged coordination between Cambridge colleges after a leaked email written by St Catharine’s bursar Simon Summers to all college bursars on 21st September appeared to call for responses in favour of the defined contributions scheme.

Professor Michael Otsuka, from the London School of Economics (LSE), has led the debate about alleged collusion through a series of blog posts, including a copy of Summers’ email, which was leaked to him.

Summers, who chairs the pensions sub-committee of the Bursars’ Committee’s attached a suggested response to the September consultation, which advocated for supporting the defined contributions scheme, and wrote: “please consider responding to the consultation, perhaps using the attached as a guide.”

The email also suggested that responding bursars state that the responses may not have been formally approved by the colleges. Summers added: “You will also wish to consider how to achieve a consensus view in your College about the issues facing the Scheme, during Michaelmas Term”.

Explained What is the Pensions Sub-Committee and Bursars’ Committee?

The Bursars’ Committee is an meeting group comprised of the college bursars. It is officially part of the Office for Intercollegiate Services, a business entity that exists independently of the University to facilitate things like coordinated purchasing and information provision between the colleges. College bursars meet to make key financial decisions that affect the student experience, including setting college fees. There is no University representative on the committee, and it is not officially listed as a University committee – though several of Cambridge’s committees have members listed as being Bursars’ Committee representatives. The Pensions Sub-Committee falls under the umbrella of the Bursars’ Committee and deals with matters relating to staff pensions.

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Details of a discussion between Oxford and Cambridge bursars on 20th September have recently surfaced, supporting allegations of collusion. Notes from the meeting, which were initially available on Oxford’s website, but have since been removed for unknown reasons, were downloaded and disclosed to Varsity.

The ten attendees from Cambridge advised that Oxford and Cambridge should press for sectionalisation of the scheme

They reveal that the ten attendees from Cambridge advised that Oxford and Cambridge should press for sectionalisation of the scheme – which would create sections within the scheme in which contributions are lower than the minimum contribution quality, preventing the University and colleges from acting as the “last men standing” should the scheme fail.

Summers advocated sectionalisation, too, in the leaked email. He wrote that sectionalisation “would actually be achieved for future service by a move to DC [defined contribution].”

It was also noted in the meeting that attendees from Cambridge supported pressing for a pure defined contributions scheme, which Oxford bursars present were broadly in favour of. Cambridge bursars allegedly referred to a growing realisation and frustration that financially weaker higher education institutions (HEIs) were relying on the balance sheets of stronger HEIs to support the pension scheme, which they claimed was contributing to a dangerous and unsustainable rise in debt in the higher education sector.

Bursars from ten Cambridge colleges – Clare, King’s, Jesus, Darwin, Trinity Hall, Murray Edwards, Corpus Christi, Wolfson, Fitzwilliam and Newnham – attended the meeting, four of whom ended up among the seven who responded to the UUK survey calling for less risk: Corpus Christi, Jesus, King’s and Fitzwilliam.

Claims that the Oxbridge colleges may have over-influenced the result through collaboration, however, have been strongly contested. Speaking to Varsity, Dr. Keith Carne, secretary of the Bursars’ Committee, said: “We were not told that this would be done on a one-employer, one-vote basis; we were asked to respond to a survey.”

The UUK has remained silent until now amid the furore

UUK has remained silent until now amid the furore, failing to respond to Varsity’s comment request nearly a month ago about the methodology it used to take different colleges’ responses into account, and whether it gave equal weight to college responses and university responses.

On Sunday, however, UUK announced that it will call on an independent body of experts to review the methodology it used to determine that the University Superannuation Scheme’s (USS) deficit was £6.1 billion, as stated in their September valuation.

Also yesterday, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of UUK, responded to public questions from Professor Dame Athene Donald, ten days after her initial email. He wrote: “We were cautious that some responses were not officially authorised by the institution and reflected this in our thinking. In forming our overall response, we also considered the different sizes of USS employers”.

He added: “The UUK survey of September 2017 was not the determining factor in the view that UUK expressed to the USS Trustee on the technical provisions consultation. It was only one part of a range of inputs that informed our response.”

No concrete detail has been given about the methodology in question

Despite Jarvis’s response, no concrete detail has been given about the methodology in question. Questions remain about what the “caution” involved specifically meant, how the different sizes of USS employers were considered and how big of a role the UUK survey played amongst the “range of inputs that informed [their] response.”


Mountain View

What Toope said – and didn’t say – at the open meeting

Responding to Jarvis, Churchill released a statement saying: “Individuals will be able to judge the reply for themselves, but the College notes that [Jarvis’ response] raises as many questions as it answers.”

When asked by Financial Times pensions correspondent, Josephine Cumbo, “Will the review consider UUK’s employer consultation which has been subject to critcisms by Colleges?“, the UUK neglected to answer, and wrote instead: “Further details of the terms of reference and membership of the panel will be announced shortly. UCU will be invited to play a full role in providing evidence to the panel.”

As the UCU makes plans for further strike action in the exam period, including 14 further days of direct action and the resignation of hundreds of external examiners, questions to the UUK and Cambridge colleges remain about how the pensions dispute began, and whether its causes were legitimate – with little indication of a concrete response in sight.

Alongside UUK’s announcement, and his response to Donald, Jarvis wrote in The Sunday Times yesterday about last week’s failed UCU and UUK negotiations. He called the negotiations “bitterly disappointing after both sides had worked so hard to achieve a mutually acceptable way forward for the pension scheme.”

He added: “employers are willing to raise contributions to 19.3%, as part of the Acas deal, so that the majority of USS members would retain a full defined-benefits pension.”

However, Jarvis wrote that keeping the defined benefits “status quo” would require raising employer and staff contributions, currently at 18%, “double the private sector average,” by 11%, which would mean an additional annual £1 billion – this, he said, is “simply unaffordable without serious cuts to teaching, research and jobs.”

Jarvis added that “employers recognise that questions have been raised over the 2017 valuation methodology,” and the independent panel of experts will “consider issues of methodology, assumptions and monitoring, aiming to promote greater transparency and understanding of the valuation.”

In response to Jarvis’ letter in The Sunday Times, Otsuka tweeted: “In order to restore trust with scheme members, you need to come clean and acknowledge that costs are so high only because a 42% minority of employers (of which a third Oxbridge colleges) chose to break the valuation.”

  • Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously claimed that Robinson College had responded in the USS consultation. This claim was published in good faith based on the information provided by Robinson, which was later declared to be inaccurate