University staff, including head of communications Paul Mylrea, gathered in the Old Schools first court on the first night of a five-day student occupation Louis Ashworth

Cambridge attempted to coordinate with Oxford, and considered how to exploit employees’ concerns, in a concerted effort to influence the higher education sector earlier this year.

Last term saw an unprecedented revolt against what staff saw as a betrayal by their institutions of their interests. 40,000 university staff across 64 institutions took to picket lines for fourteen days of strike action, demanding the preservation of their pensions.

A Varsity investigation has uncovered senior finance officials at Cambridge attempting to steer the national pensions dispute to protect their financial position.

Cambridge’s collusion with Oxford

University Finance Committee minutes leaked to Varsity reveal that senior officials called for Cambridge’s response to a survey gathering employers’ perspectives on the national pensions scheme to be “coordinated with Oxford as far as possible”.

Explained Who are the finance committee and pensions working group?

The finance committee meets officially around five or six times a year. Its purpose is to advise the Council on the University’s assets, such as its estates, investments, income and expenditure.

The finance committee consists of 13 members, chaired by Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope. Three members are elected by representatives of the colleges, four are appointed by the University Council, one by the General Board, two by Regent House, and two co-opted by the committee.

The pensions working group, a sub-committee set up by the finance committee, includes an independent actuary Jonathan Seed, University officials, head of the intercollegiate pensions sub-committee of the bursars’ committee Simon Summers, and is chaired by Pro-vice-chancellor for Institutional and International Relations Professor Eilis Ferran.

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The goal was to demonstrate that there was a mandate for a position that falls in line with their financial interests, that employers take on the lowest risk possible in the national pensions scheme.

FINANCE COMMITTEE MINUTES – 9th March 2017

❝ The University’s response to the consultation should be robust, and should be coordinated with that of Oxford as far as possible. It would be important to highlight that USS’s previous offer to consider the sectionalisation of the Scheme had not yet materialised. ❞


The survey, sent out by university representative Universities UK (UUK), was intended to gather a representative view of employers on its proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the largest higher education pensions scheme in the UK.

A spokesperson for the University commented on the discussions with Oxford: “The University discussed its views on both the 2014 and 2017 USS valuations with a number of employers in the scheme.”

Cambridge saw an opportunity to exploit staff’s concerns

As staff striked with a desperate sense of impending financial insecurity, senior figures saw an opportunity to capitalise on their fears.

FINANCE COMMITTEE MINUTES – 4th October 2017

❝ It was noted that.... if it was determined that USS should move to a defined contributions basis, the University would be able to argue much more strongly in favour of moving away from USS in order to establish its own defined benefits schemefor future benefits. ❞


Leaked meeting minutes reveal finance officials noted that if the national pensions scheme moved entirely away from a system of defined benefits – in which employees are guaranteed an income upon retirement – “the University would be able to argue much more strongly in favour of moving away from USS in order to establish its own defined benefits scheme for future benefits.”

They remarked: “Defined benefits were highly valued by the University’s staff.”

Minutes reveal senior University staff dismissed a Regent House Grace as “evidence of the poor understanding of the matters at issue”

Officials had also dismissed their concerns. Midway through the strikes, 501 staff, as members of Cambridge’s governing body Regent’s House, called for the retention of a defined benefit scheme, contrary to the administration’s interests. Minutes reveal senior University staff dismissed their calls as “evidence of the poor understanding of the matters at issue.”

Cambridge considered leaving the national scheme

Notes from a meeting in September 2017 between Oxford and Cambridge bursars described Cambridge’s “growing realisation and frustration that financially weaker Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) were relying on the balance sheets of stronger HEIs to support the pension scheme, and indirectly, allow greater borrowing in the sector.” The document, previously available on an Oxford internal server, was later removed.

FINANCE COMMITTEE MINUTES – 4th October 2017

❝ The Council was of the view that it was premature to move fully to a defined contribution scheme and that,if the position could be secured that the University were no longer responsible for underwriting the USS as ‘last man standing’, it could establish its own scheme tailored to its employees’ needs and risk appetite. ❞


Should Cambridge leave the national pension scheme, it would mark a betrayal of the higher education sector.

Explained What is the last man standing currently in place, and why does Cambridge want to break away from it?

The USS operates under a last man standing scheme. Under the scheme rules, the liabilities of universities which become insolvent are passed to the last employer in the scheme.

Sectionalisation, which came up in finance committee discussions and Summers’ leaked email, involves the legal separation of each institution’s assets and liabilities. This would allow the finances of pension schemes across the higher education sector to be separated.

In the case of one institution becoming insolvent, the funding deficit would then not be spread across the other participating institutions, which is what occurs under the current last man standing' system.

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Leaks revealed the University has calculated it would cost £2.5bn to pull out of the scheme, making it unfeasible for the time being.

If word got out that they were considering this, Finance Committee members feared, it could paint the University as indifferent to the fate of the sector

To pull out of the scheme was seen as a last resort. Despite this, meeting minutes reveal the option was given serious consideration. If word got out that they were considering this, Finance Committee members feared, it could paint the University as indifferent to the fate of the sector.

Committee members noted: There was already some negative press coverage of the involvement of the Colleges and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the discussions to date.” If their discussion of individualising defined benefits was made public, they feared, it “might be seen, wrongly, as part of a plan to wreck the USS rather than a last resort.”

Michael Otsuka, the London School of Economics (LSE) academic who first raised the question of the role of Oxbridge colleges in the consultation process, was singled out. His comments in The Guardian were said to have “created tension within the colleges, in particular with incoming fellows.”

Coordination extended to colleges

Colleges too, conspired to push for lower risk. A leaked email from Simon Summers, chair of the pensions sub-committee – a circle of college bursars – provided a “suggested response” to colleges to call for less risk to be placed on employers.

Questions already exist about college collusion: the only five colleges which have released the details of their responses in full were found to have responded virtually identically, with all of them pushing to take less risk in funding staffs’ pensions.

A Varsity investigation in March found that seven of the eight colleges which have confirmed they called for less risk, three of which have released statements but did not provide a transcript of their responses, have come forward about their decision-making procedure: bursars had submitted their responses on behalf of the college without consulting their governing bodies.

There was a mounting sense that something was amiss in how Cambridge colleges were able to influence the pensions dispute

In March this year, as a handful of colleges came out with statements criticising their bursars’ actions, there was a mounting sense that something was amiss in how Cambridge colleges were able to influence the pensions dispute.

Summers’ email showed him advocating that bursars respond to the consultation, but that they include “a formulation to show that the responses may not have been formally approved by colleges.”

He 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.”

When questioned by Varsity, Summers did not address the question of why he pushed bursars to achieve a consensus, instead saying that he wished to advise bursars to “consider having that consultation [with the Governing Body] as soon as possible”.


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Did Cambridge’s colleges help cause the staff pensions crisis?

Freedom of Information requests reveal that the Finance Committee asked one of its sub-committees, Cambridge’s Pensions Working Group, to “formulate a robust response acting as far as possible with Cambridge colleges and University of Oxford to ensure consistency to give weight to the responses.”

Leaks also reveal they felt they had “no visibility on the University’s position and would welcome the opportunity to be involved in ongoing discussions.”

A spokesperson for the University remarked on discussions with colleges: “while Colleges are autonomous, self-governing institutions, it is beneficial to consider these issues in the broader context of how they affect the Collegiate University.”

What was Cambridge trying to achieve?

Employers’ perspectives, both that of the University and colleges, indicated a growing disillusionment with the structure of the national pensions scheme as a whole.

In the University’s response to the September 2017 survey, it expressed its “strong preference” to break from the last man standing scheme currently in place.

Employers’ perspectives indicated a growing disillusionment with the structure of the national pensions scheme as a whole

In sticking with the defined benefit scheme, institutions will be forced to make higher contributions to their employees’ pensions. Cambridge expressed concern that the current system left it vulnerable to inheriting liabilities as weaker institutions fell away.

Pensions working group members expressed concern at possible future increased risk to employers if the last man standing scheme was maintained. Meeting minutes revealed members’ views: “it should be pointed out that there were alternative options for scheme design” – which they expressed in responding to the survey.

Cambridge had repeatedly expressed its desire for a sectionalisation of the pensions scheme, wherein trustees would be able to segregate sections of the USS in order to mitigate the impact of one employer defaulting on other members.

Attempts to push for their financial interests have been years in the works

The last time this happened, it went unnoticed. Yet a network of pensions discussions disconnected from staffs’ interests has been years in the works.

The last time this happened, it went unnoticed

Freedom of Information requests reveal that for the previous USS valuation in 2014, Professor Jeremy Sanders, the former Chair of the Pensions Working Group, met with counterparts at Oxford, LSE and the University of Edinburgh. The official at Oxford had also met with administrators at the University of Manchester and Imperial College.


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‘A lot of us felt betrayed’: UCU members speak out about the deteriorating higher education system

Minutes reveal that Sanders “hoped this would result in a number of consultation responses along similar lines which would hopefully influence the decision making process. Oxford and Cambridge would share draft responses.”

An institution isolating itself

Decisions made behind closed doors by a select group of senior Cambridge officials seem to have played a key role in bringing the crisis to a flashpoint. 2018 marked an awakening for many at the marketisation of higher education.

Cambridge as an institution is evolving. In doing so, it calls into question who its decision-makers stand for, if not its staff, and the fate of higher education itself.

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