Lady Mitchell Hall, which today hosted a discussion of Regent House, the University's central governing bodyLouis Ashworth

University of Cambridge staff have today hit out at Universities UK (UUK) for a perceived lack of transparency in the ongoing pension dispute, which has spurred nationwide strike action by the University and College Union (UCU).

A discussion in Lady Mitchell Hall, held by Regent House – Cambridge central governing body, whose members include college heads and fellows – saw University staff question the degree of transparency within UUK and USS in both its USS deficit estimate and in UUK’s methodology.

Dr Alexander has been a vocal critic of the University's approach to the pension disputeLouis Ashworth

Cambridge UCU strike action representative Dr. Anne Alexander described the valuation methodology as “neither transparent nor fair”. Alexander also called on Cambridge to position itself as a guarantor of USS, in order to minimise pressure from the pensions regulator regarding the scheme’s level of risk.

Dr. James Freeman reiterated Alexander’s comments, in describing a “crisis of legitimacy” for Universities UK, following what he characterised as an “undemocratic survey” regarding the USS September valuation that was “partial in its scope”.

Speakers echoed growing calls within Cambridge for greater transparency in the methodology of UUK regarding their proposed changes to pensions. Last week, Master of Churchill College Professor Dame Athene Donald requested that UUK provide details on how it weighed survey responses regarding the September 2017 USS valuation, which she described as “necessary if trust in the dialogue is to be rebuilt”.

The September 2017 valuation looked at employer and employee contribution levels to the USS, in order for UUK to assess the sustainability of the scheme. As part of UUK’s consultation with the USS, it sent out a survey to 350 higher-education institutions on their preferred level of risk to the USS. The level of risk is defined as the degree of reliance placed on the employer’s covenant, which is their legal obligation and financial ability to support the scheme.

Questions have been raised over the role of individual Cambridge colleges in the pensions dispute, as several responded to a Universities UK survey by calling for a more moderate level of risk to the scheme. The implications of colleges’ survey responses remain unclear, as UUK have not provided detail on their methodology regarding the USS valuation.


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

Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope has also criticised the University’s response for a “strong preference” for the sectionalisation of assets and a more moderate level of risk than that proposed by USS trustees in the September 2017 valuation. According to Cambridge UCU pensions representative Dr. Richard Farndale speaking at the Regent House discussion, Toope has privately told staff “that the University is content with the present level of risk” in USS, although the University has not officially reversed its position of its preference for less risk.

In Friday’s open meeting, Toope noted that the initial consultation was “done very very quickly”, where there “probably wasn’t enough thought given moving off the either/or position”. He added, however, that it is “actually very difficult to change the acceptance of risk that has already been authorised by an employer group within a pension scheme”.

The Regent House discussion follows a series of concessions on the USS dispute made by the vice-chancellor, who last week labelled the marketisation of higher education a "fundamental error" and promised higher pension contributions to the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

Toope’s emphasis during the open meeting on the limits of his decision-making power within the University governance structure – where financial decisions are finalised by the University Council – saw echoes today in the Regent House discussion, as Dr. Steven Watson criticised the system as one of “little transparency, and with no democratic scrutiny”.

The University Council, Cambridge’s central executive and policy-making body, reviewed a Grace regarding the USS yesterday, in consultation with the Council’s Finance Committee.

The Regent House Grace, signed in February by 501 members, includes the following points:

  • Notes the importance of the University ensuring adequate pension values in attracting and retaining high-calibre staff
  • Accepts the level of risk proposed in the September 2017 USS valuation, rather than the more moderate level of risk in the modified November 2017 USS valuation by Universities UK
  • Resolves that the University continue to offer a “competitive defined benefit scheme” as part of its employment package
  • Regards the University Superannuation Scheme Technical Provision Consultation, proposed in September 2017, as an acceptable and sustainable way forward

In an open letter last week, Toope called for the University Council to accept a higher level of risk and cost to University employers in the short term, “as a bridge to a sustainable long-term solution”.

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