USS’ straw man

March 29, 2018

In his article “USS strike: we can’t ignore reality of our deficit, says pensions boss” (Opinion, 19 March,, Bill Galvin, the chief executive of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, “tackles some of the ‘misunderstandings’ about the fund’s approach to its valuation”.

For those of us who have been on strike over this issue and the proposed changes to USS pensions, this is “straw-manning” – creating objections to a proposal that are easily countered. And even parts of this are wrong.

There were, Galvin says, “24 months of engagement with employers, member representatives, the Pensions Regulator and independent advisers. We’ve endeavoured to conduct one of the most transparent, albeit complex, valuations of any UK pension scheme.”

However, the employers’ views were solicited and presented by taking at face value Universities UK’s claims to have surveyed its members, and the USS accepted UUK’s claim that 42 per cent of its members would not take on further risk, and that this was a determinative factor.

This claim of 42 per cent is not weighted according to employer size. The survey asked if respondents spoke for their institution or unofficially, yet both categories are lumped into the 42 per cent. The survey infamously double-counted Oxbridge colleges and the two universities. And some of those included in that 42 per cent have reversed their position.

All this and more has been set out in forensic detail on Twitter , by Felicity Callard , Michael Otsuka and @etymologic . Rather than respond to these detailed critiques, Galvin chose to cherry-pick easily countered arguments to suggest that we are misled.

Moreover, when the Financial Times’ pensions reporter Josephine Cumbo asked Galvin about the problems of the UUK survey, she reported him as saying : “UUK have a challenging job to do. It’s almost impossible to pull together disparate views on risk & appetite & affordability across a wide range of eers [employers] across the scheme. There’ll always be a situation where some members aren’t going to be happy with the final conclusion.”

This is not true, methodologically, and it is also far from impossible – and if it were, the USS should not have treated the results as gospel and based the move to defined contributions on them.

What’s more, Galvin conflates the existence of a difference of opinion with the inability to represent those differences accurately. To do so is misleading to the point of dissembling.

Galvin should do his homework and address the serious, detailed concerns. He has taken it on himself to point out errors that he sees made by some on this issue. When it comes to errors made by those representing employers, he is surely obliged to do the same. Otherwise, he is choosing to advocate for only one side of our joint negotiating committee and to be adversarial towards the other.

In claiming thoroughness and transparency, and trivialising the “mistakes” of the employers’ side in the consultation while highlighting those he sees being made on the employee members’ side, Galvin is not behaving as the CEO of the USS should do. Not least, he must recognise that more than 10,000 people have signed a parliamentary petition urging that Universities UK, a charity, be subject to Freedom of Information regulation. Rightly or wrongly, that suggests a massive lack of faith in the transparency that Galvin claims here, and he should acknowledge this, and act to restore it.

Bill Cooke

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