Protesters outside TrinityRosie Bradbury

“If Trinity will not support the wider academic community, the academic community has a duty to return the compliment”, said University Councillor Dr Jason Scott-Warren, speaking of the College’s recent decision to exit the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). “What Trinity has done is to turn its back on cooperativity in favour of self-interest,” remarked Professor Richard Farndale.

Earlier this term, Trinity College made the landmark decision to exit the national pensions scheme for higher education employees, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a decision dubbed “Trexit”. Trinity academics who were previously part of this scheme will “become members of new pensions arrangements administered by the College, providing the same benefits as [the USS]”.

This decision has the potential to destabilise the entire pensions scheme, impacting staff nationwide. A senior USS official has told employers that the pensions scheme will be placed on “negative watch” following Trinity’s withdrawal. If, following Trinity’s exit, a second sizable employer chooses to exit the scheme, official advisors say that the scheme’s overall rating of financial stability would be downgraded from ‘strong’ to ‘tending to strong’.

At the time of writing, over 450 Cambridge academics have pledged to withdraw all labour from Trinity College in protest of their decision, including supervisions for Trinity students. Varsity reached out to some of these academics to hear their views on Trinity’s actions, and on the potential impact of their boycott.

Trinity’s decision to leave the USS was motivated by the risk of less financially robust higher education institutions in the scheme collapsing, which could leave wealthier institutions, such as Trinity, taking up the shortfall. Several academics expressed frustration at this motivation, describing the small risk associated with the USS in a range of creative manners. Dr Waseem Yaqoob, Cambridge UCU Branch Secretary, described the likelihood of such a situation arising as “akin to that of an asteroid landing on the Great Gate”. Professor Richard Farndale, meanwhile, compared the probability “to that of a lightning bolt striking a specific individual on a Thursday in June at noon”.

Even Trinity itself referred to the risk as “remote” in an official statement.

For some, this boycott marks the latest step in “resisting shifts in the higher education sector in which the wealthiest institutions win out by focusing narrowly on self-interest”, as Dr Tyler Denmead asserted.

Many academics expressed a belief that Trinity has betrayed the University community by withdrawing from the USS, consequently ostracising itself through its own actions. Professor Nick Gay, a member of the department of biochemistry, described the College’s decision as “stupid, arrogant, self-serving and uncollegial”.

Looking beyond Cambridge, many also argued that Trinity has betrayed the higher education sector at large, letting down the many other institutions which are members of the USS. Yaqoob argued that to leave the scheme is to go against the “interests of university staff and students all over the country”. Similarly, PhD Candidate Luke Hawksbee remarked that Cambridge colleges must recognise their responsibility to other higher education institutions, rather than “retreating to our own well-funded ivory tower at the expense of less fortunate colleagues and their students”.

The importance of collaborative approaches in higher education was frequently highlighted among the responses. As Professor Richard Farndale asserted: “We come to a university because we understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Many academics expressed further outrage at the £30m sum which Trinity will pay in order to leave the pensions scheme. Lee-Six commented that academics cannot “stand by and watch Trinity squander millions of pounds on the one hand, and threaten the stability and well-being of a sector already in grave decline, on the other”. Yaqoob remarked that he hoped the new incoming Trinity Master would “recognise that there are many, many better and more prudent things for the college to be spending £30m on than a decision that will ruin long standing relationships with Cambridge academics for no good reason”.

Farndale noted that there are “not many bodies that can afford to throw away £30 million so lightly”,  describing Trinity’s decision as both “contemptuous and unnecessary”.

As a result of the boycott, students at Trinity may no longer be able to receive specialist teaching in certain subject areas. Responding to concerns about the potential consequences of this, Professor Sarah Colvin remarked: “Think about the many other students across Cambridge and the UK who might not be able to be supervised by specialists in their subjects in future because the academic teaching profession has stopped looking attractive.”

A strong theme in many of the responses was a belief that Trinity’s decision is indicative of increasing marketisation within higher education. Many academics frequently reiterated that, although some “deeply regret” the potential impact on Trinity students, this issue should not be framed as staff acting against students, but rather in the interest of protecting the entire higher education sector from increasing marketisation.

Several academics affirmed that they did not take the decision to boycott Trinity, and Trinity students, lightly, but consider their protest action to be of the utmost importance. As Dr Leo Mellor noted: “boycotts, like strikes, are effective because people are inconvenienced – and institutions thus have to realise that their actions have consequences.”

Richard Farndale went as far as to assert that the college is inviting “detriment upon its own students” by choosing to withdraw from the national pensions scheme. Another academic, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that “students will be better served by an institution that treats its staff well and an education sector not governed by profit margins.”

Trinity College did not respond to Varsity’s request for comment.

In a similar vein, several academics noted that students should be considered “fellow scholars” and not “customers to be satisfied”.


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When asked what Trinity students can do in response to the boycott, various different suggestions were offered. Many academics encouraged students to sign the open letter currently in circulation, and to get in touch with senior members of the College demanding a reversal of their decision. Meanwhile, some called for more extreme action, with one PhD student suggesting an “occupation of the college financial office” and “walk-outs from all college staff”. Farndale proposed that students “ask for a proportion of their tuition fees to be refunded”.

Some remain hopeful that their boycott may prompt Trinity to overturn their decision: according to Yaqoob, a Special College Meeting, demanded by Trinity academics, is set to be held on June 21st, and he believes that there is a “good chance” the move to exit the USS will be overturned in this meeting.

But should this not occur, Scott-Warren anticipates “an intensification of action”, potentially leading to “a permanent rift between Trinity College and the wider University community.”

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