Academics have protested outside the college since Trinity's decision was revealed. Here, members of college look onRosie Bradbury

A swiftly growing boycott has seen 460 academics — a number still growing — pledge to stop supervising Trinity students or engaging in work to support the college’s research unless the college rescinds its decision made in March to exit the national pensions scheme for university employees. At a meeting held by college officials at Trinity on May 30th, the college’s senior tutor disclosed that Trinity has now entered into a legal agreement to exit the national scheme, from which it cannot withdraw.

To the audience of around 25 Trinity students in attendance, Trinity’s senior tutor revealed that officials are hoping instead to mitigate against academics’ backlash with further explanation of their decision, claiming that objecting academics have had “difficulty understanding” the situation.

Re-cap Why did Trinity decide to leave the national pensions scheme?

Varsity revealed in May that Trinity college council had decided by 9 votes to 1 to leave the national pensions scheme, called the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) for university employees that serves staff across the country — a move estimated to cost Trinity £30m.

The college has repeatedly stated its main motivation for leaving the scheme is to avoid a “remote but existential risk” of the UK higher education sector collapsing financially, in which case employers like Trinity may be the only members in a healthy enough position to prop up the scheme.

Last month, it was also revealed that should one more employer comparable to Trinity in size leave the scheme, the rating of its financial stability could be downgraded — the downgrade could be used to justify future proposals from employers to take on less risk in their funding of staff pensions.

As seen in staff strikes last year, employers were motivated by concerns over the scheme’s financial situation to move toward a more conservative funding model in which employers would take on less risk, but where staff could have been left as much as £200,000 worse off.

The scheme is currently pursuing a rule change that could give them more power to prevent such employers from leaving.

Since the college’s decision was revealed, academics have protested outside the college every Wednesday, and over 460 so far have pledged to stop engaging in supervisions and research indefinitely, unless the college overturns its decision.

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Evidence seen by Varsity from the meeting also revealed that History and English students at Trinity are most likely to feel the impact of academics’ backlash, and that the University — specifically the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education — has been working with college officials at Trinity to minimise the potential impact of the mounting academic boycott.

Can Trinity retract its decision?

Trinity has now entered into a legal agreement to leave the national pensions scheme, senior tutor Professor Catherine Barnard revealed — a move which may mean it now “can’t change its mind.”


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Cambridge academics rally outside Trinity in protest of USS exit

Yet fellows at Trinity are set to vote on Friday, June 21st, on whether the college should overturn its decision. The outcome will then be presented to the college council for consideration.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Cambridge UCU — the employee’s union which has led backlash against Trinity’s decision — commented: “It is in the interests of proponents of Trinity’s exit from USS to paint this as an irreversible decision. A deal may have been done, but it is possible to reverse, either by formally revoking Trinity’s departure or by rejoining the Scheme. That’s why and it is with this in view that fellows within Trinity College who do not support this irresponsible decision are arguing for reversal at a Special College Meeting this Friday.”

At the meeting, Professor Barnard added that she hoped the academic boycott would be mitigated by “a degree of explanation.” She continued: “Because these are complicated issues that [the Council] has grappled with for the last two years [...] and it’s taken a lot for us to understand what’s going on, it’s not surprising that academics in other subjects,” aside from Law, “who haven’t been thinking about this for two years have difficulty understanding, because it’s a complicated picture.”

Another sign from the weekly protests held outside the college every WednesdayRosie Bradbury
Trinity porters looking onRosie Bradbury

A spokesperson for Cambridge UCU commented: “To claim that it is a lack of understanding that leads staff to call for the halt to Trinity’s withdrawal from USS is disappointingly patronising. There is considerable expertise in finance, pensions, legal and charitable issues within the University of Cambridge which has been utilised to refute the financial arguments outlined by the Trinity Council. Unlike the Council it seems, signatories also have a clear understanding of reputational damage Trinity has brought upon itself, and how this will impact on the charitable purpose of the College.”

History and English students at risk

History and English students at Trinity are most at risk of feeling the impact of the boycott, Professor Barnard also revealed.

At the time of the meeting, around 35 academics from the History faculty and 32 from English had pledged to stop engaging with teaching and research at the college. Since then, both figures have close to doubled, with 63 academics in History and 60 in English.

“I would like to say it’s all absolutely fine, but I’m afraid that would be not being truthful with you,” said Professor Barnard, who also sits on the College Council which decided in March by ninevotes to one to leave the scheme, in response to a question from the floor.

Barnard continued: “But we’ve got enough time to try and put some things in place, in cooperation with the University who are highly supportive because [it] feels very strongly there should be no discrimination against our students.”

“I would like to say it’s all absolutely fine, but I’m afraid that would be not being truthful with you”

At the meeting, Professor Barnard claimed she had met with members of the History faculty and was meeting with History staff at the college the day after to discuss possible arrangements, and would be meeting with English staff soon after.

Both Trinity and Professor Barnard declined to comment on whether any other subjects are of new concern given the sharp rise in the size of the boycott.

The college’s official statement reads: “[The College’s withdrawal] is not a decision taken lightly by the College Council. Following substantial legal and actuarial advice, and bearing in mind our responsibilities as Charity Trustees of Trinity,* we believe leaving USS is in the best interests of the College. This decision also helps to ensure Trinity’s continued and substantial financial support to the whole of Collegiate Cambridge.”

The college will be obligated to inform applicants to History and English about the boycott and its possible effects if it renders the college unable to provide “high-level, decent teaching,” Professor Barnard confirmed in response to a question from the floor. “But,” she said, “I’m not sure we’re in that position at the moment.” She declined to comment on whether her position has changed in light of the boycott’s growth.

Trinity has received assistance from Pro-Vice-Chancellor for education, Professor Graham Virgo, Professor Barnard claimed. Before the meeting, Professor Virgo had spoken to all heads of schools — who oversee clusters of faculties — “to ensure that they understand that [the] message is no discrimination against Trinity students.”

She said, in reference to preventing “discrimination” against Trinity students: “Graham Virgo feels very, very strongly about that.”


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‘Arrogant and uncollegial’: Academics on Trinity’s USS withdrawal

A spokesperson for Cambridge UCU commented on Professor Virgo’s alleged assistance to the college: “We will be happy to discuss with Graham Virgo any concerns that he has, and hope that he can use his influence with Trinity College to show the Council that they are part of an integrated system that requires mutual support and which relies on discretionary labour.”

Professor Virgo did not respond to a request for comment.

Dr Jason Scott-Warren, a member of the University’s central governing body, who has been openly critical of Trinity’s decision, told Varsity: “Sadly, the academic community understands all too well the kind of aggressive self-interest that underlies Trinity’s decision. Many people in the higher echelons at Cambridge are incapable of understanding the anxieties of lecturers who are fighting to defend their pensions. The college has chosen to conspire with the market-driven assault on UK higher education, and the reaction is predictably intense.

“This is not ‘discrimination’ against Trinity students; it is a fight for the values that underpin our universities.”