September 25, 2014

Views on pensions depend on principles

Re the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (“Reforms seen as ‘radical attack’ on pensions”, News, 18 September): in non-academic terms we are getting done over royally.

This is what people tried to warn would happen, that the USS crisis would get so big we would all get this treatment. The USS should have been reformed years ago: in its current form it redistributes wealth from the lower-earning younger staff to retired and close-to-retired higher-paid staff.

The transfer was hidden because some chose to believe that the employers would make good the deficit when all the evidence was that they would not.

The numbers given assume a 3 per cent return above the consumer price index; this is a heroic assumption. USS went bust on 2 per cent. In reality, the numbers will be worse (much worse) for all concerned.

I also note that in the case studies you print to demonstrate the potential impact of the changes, it would have been better to have “she” as well as “he”, instead of all male illustrations.

Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

Your reports on the Universities Superannuation Scheme tend to imply that statistics show a funding deficit as if the USS’ assets and liabilities are objective scientific truths when in fact they are based on theories.

There are two principles on which defined-benefit pension schemes are organised: pay-as-you-go (which is used throughout the public sector, including the Teachers’ Pension Scheme) and funding (which is used for smaller pension schemes offered by private sector employers in the risky marketplace).

How we think about the USS depends on which of these principles we apply. Viewed as a PAYG scheme, the USS appears to be financially strong with an annual surplus of more than £1 billion a year, a strongly performing investment portfolio and growing membership. The deficit figures you quote come from regarding the USS as if it were the other type of scheme, one belonging to a small company that must be prudently managed against the likelihood of the firm failing. But to apply that approach to the whole pre-92 higher education sector covered by the USS is to misuse a theoretical model by applying it in circumstances it was not designed for and in which it will cease to work. We have heard a lot about economic models failing in the financial crash of 2008; we have the same issue today with pensions.

Journalists should follow the advice of Ha-Joon Chang when he says “economics is too important to leave to the experts”. Rather than taking on trust the opinion of someone styled as a pensions expert (as frequently happens), you should get them to justify in detail what assumptions they are making, and recognise that the whole issue of the state of the USS is in fact highly controversial.

Dennis Leech
Professor of economics
University of Warwick

Who is Willetts to advise?

Having first on the floor of the House of Commons described the Higher Education Policy Institute’s analysis of the cost of the government’s policies as “eccentric”, and then conceded to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that Hepi was right “but for the wrong reasons”, David Willetts might have been expected to steer clear of the topic of tuition fees and funding. So it is surprising that he feels in a position to give advice on higher education funding to Liam Byrne (“I’m afraid there is no money trick that makes £6K fees a good idea”, Opinion, 18 September).

While it is unsurprising that the former minister for universities seeks to underplay the cost of the present policies, he really should stop saying that the current estimates are purely hypothetical and have no basis in the real world. The reality is that his former department has been forced by the Treasury year after year to apply to the contingency reserve to make good its understatement of the cost and, therefore, the overspending. Clearly those who count think that this is real money. And yes, that money could be spent differently - instead of subsidising student loans, the government could use it to provide grants directly to universities.

Present arrangements have the effect of piling the cost of higher education on future generations (as they repay their loans through the tax system) purely to avoid the present generation of taxpayers paying more. The baby-boom generation is once again screwing its children and grandchildren - precisely the phenomenon Willetts rightly condemned in his excellent book, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back.

Bahram Bekhradnia
Higher Education Policy Institute

Chairs make a class act

In the news story “Plymouth defends ‘£150K spend on seven chairs’ ” (timeshigher­education.co.uk, 20 September), David Coslett, Plymouth University’s deputy vice-chancellor, argues that new graduation furniture was crucial to graduation ceremonies that attracted more than 25,000 students and guests to the city, injecting “around £700,000 worth of additional tourism income” into the local economy. (The university later clarified that the cost of the chairs was £95,000.)

I think the tourism income argument is entirely reasonable. I’m not sure that my family would have attended either of my graduation ceremonies had they not been fairly confident about the presence of fancy chairs.

Martyn Amos
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

Rhetorical lessons

According to Chris Ormell (“Hanging on your every word”, Letters, 18 September), one of the major disincentives to students listening and reading with full attention is “a massive daily deluge of rhetoric via the internet and media”.

Ormell uses “rhetoric” as a dirty word, as though there could be a non-rhetorical use of language. A few moments’ full attention to Ormell’s letter, however, reveals that he himself uses a wide range of rhetorical devices and techniques. These include alliteration (“daily deluge”, “perennial problem”); hyperbole (“chronic”, “massive”); isocolon (“listen and read”, “internet and media”); and metaphor (“deluge of rhetoric”, “the cupboard of genuinely new ideas is all but bare”). Also noticeable is his use of high style (“emanating from the cognoscenti”) and emotive vocabulary, both positive (“felicitous”) and negative (“weary”, “rubbished”). Finally, his very first sentence offers a striking example of the A-B-B-A structure of chiasmus: “Getting students to listen/is the perennial problem of teaching,/matched by the problem/of getting them to read.”

Using an appropriately rhetorical question, might I suggest that one solution to the problem of getting students to listen and read attentively would be to revive the teaching of rhetoric?

Neil Foxlee
Visiting lecturer in rhetoric
Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts

Pay for the skills you want

I have the greatest respect for my colleague Dame Ann Dowling, but I wonder if industry is being entirely straight with her when it claims to need double the current number of graduate engineers (“Seeing great ideas through to the finish line”, News, 28 August). If there were a true shortage, then I would expect to see individual companies advertising enthusiastically and competing to pay higher salaries. Neither of these appears to be the case.

For some years I have monitored the salaries offered to graduate scientists by STEM-sector employers, as appears in the rather sparse recruitment pages of New Scientist, Physics World and similar. They are currently about £24K a year, which compares to that of a National Express coach driver - but the non-graduate coach driver gets additional overtime, starts earning four years earlier, and pays about 75 per cent of the marginal tax rate once student loan repayments are taken into account.

Perhaps it’s too cynical to accuse industry of talking up surplus production in order to keep salaries down. More likely, employers have not asked themselves why they have difficulty recruiting. I suspect that what industry means is not that we need to produce twice as many graduates, but that they need twice the number who (a) have the right skills, (b) don’t want a PhD and (c) are prepared to forgo substantially higher salaries in finance and consulting. If so, then “Physician, heal thyself”. Some clarity on what they are looking for would be good, and competitive starting salaries may well be a more efficacious prescription than expanding courses.

Rachael Padman
Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge

In the feature “Please sir, can I have some more?” (18 September), you report Alan Milburn noting that postgraduate qualifications are an increasingly important part of professional jobs in UK industry. Indeed.
So when it comes to funding study for them, why not levy a tax on employers who take on the well-qualified and, no doubt, benefit very considerably from doing so?

Keith Flett

A simple proposal

Readers sympathetic to Fred Inglis (“Trained obedience”, Features, 28 August) and Marina Warner (“Attempts to ‘gag and silence’ academics are commonplace”, News, 11 September) and their fears for the independence of academics amid a marketised higher education sector should read Paul Goodman’s The Community of Scholars (1962). Goodman observes that the “peculiar disease of modern administration is that it replaces in a formal and functionless way, the community of scholars itself”, turning teachers and students into “company men” and “grade-seekers”. Universities are run like banks; college presidents act like chief executives; education is considered a “brand good for selling and buying” like any other. Particular attention should be paid to the author’s final chapter, “A simple proposal”, as it was a key influence on the free universities movement.

Martin Levy
University of Bradford

He scores, in two fields

Your report in The Week in Higher Education (28 August) on the student turned professional footballer and the possibility of his prize-winning essay being published (“surely the first academic publication by a current professional footballer”) is not quite correct.

In 1988, when I was managing editor of the journal Leisure Studies, we published “The limitations of economic analysis - the case of professional football”, by Clarke, A. and Madden, L. While Alan Clarke (not the footballer of the same name) was at The Open University, Lawrie Madden was a professional footballer at Sheffield Wednesday (doing a part-time degree, I recall).

Being a devoted editor, I tried to meet my authors whenever possible. The next time Sheffield Wednesday played down in Southampton, I went and had a drink or two with Madden at the team hotel. The next day, I spent 90 difficult minutes watching as he kicked lumps out of Matt Le Tissier and the Wallace brothers, and we ended up losing the game. Regrettably, it was too late by then to withdraw the paper from publication.

Out of interest, Madden scored more goals in his professional career of over 350 appearances as a central defender (13) than the number of times the paper has been cited (7).

Roger Ingham
Professor of health and community psychology
University of Southampton

The power of the eternals

Perhaps Greek universities should be wary of removing their “eternals” (News, 4 September). Was it not the Eternals who enabled the Greeks to defeat their Persian counterparts, the Immortals, at the Battle of Plataea, 479BC, halting a Persian invasion of Greece? With new troubles brewing in the region, Athens may yet need these Eternals again.

Hillary J. Shaw
Director and senior research consultant
Shaw Food Solutions, Newport, Shropshire

A haven for the hungover

I enjoyed Dale Salwak’s feature “Make a class a haven” (18 September). How innovative to create a space without the distractions of talking, groupwork and computers, and with bare walls and soft lights, so that students, after a night on the tiles, can come in and fall asleep.

George Sheeran
Honorary visiting postdoctoral fellow
University of Bradford

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