Ask the panel

January 6, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I will be retiring in December 2006 from a new university. I have colleagues in old universities covered by the Universities Superannuation Scheme, who will be retiring at the same time and have opted to take 25 per cent of their pension fund as a lump sum. Will the Teachers' Pension Scheme, which covers new universities, allow me to do this? If not, why not?

* Our panellist from lecturers' union Natfhe says: "The Teachers' Pension Scheme (TPS) has not yet formally decided whether it will change its regulations to allow members to draw up to 25 per cent of the value of their benefits as a lump sum.

"The negotiations on the reform of the TPS restarted in November with an initial meeting with Schools Minister Jacqui Smith andunion and employer representatives. This followed the agreement of the framework principles for teachers, civil servants and National Health Service pensions at the Public Service Forum on October 18. There are a series of meetings planned in early 2006 and the aim is to complete these negotiations by the end of March so there can be the final consultation and a finalisation of details by June.

"At this time, it is wise to consider retiring under the present arrangements. If the regulations change to allow you this option, I would consider carefully the rate of exchange to ensure that you achieve the best return on your fund. Given increased life expectancy, a rate of exchange of 1:12 may not be the best decision if you are likely to be living on your pension beyond 77 years of age."

* The panellist from the Association of University Teachers confirms: "At the moment, the rules of the TPS do not allow you to take 25 per cent of your pension as a lump sum."

But she adds that the teacher trade unions are negotiating with the Department for Education and Skills changes to the (TPS) to implement the Public Sector Pension Forum agreement. There are also ongoing negotiations for other improvements and to introduce "tax simplification".

"Given that a change in the scheme rules to permit individuals to draw 25 per cent of their accrued fund at retirement is estimated by most other schemes to be cost-neutral to the pension fund, the AUT can see absolutely no reason why this option should not be permitted in the TPS," she says.

"Obviously before making a decision of this kind it is strongly recommended that individuals seek independent financial advice."

She points out that this question also highlights the emerging differences between the two pension schemes (USS and TPS) for academic staff in higher education. The ongoing negotiations in the TPS will only increase the number of differences.

"In 1997, the Dearing report recognised that a steady stream of academic and research staff were moving across the sector and it recommended a single pension scheme for higher education staff, namely the USS," she says. "With the increasing number of differences between the schemes, and with the rules of the TPS, and local government pension schemes under review, the AUT believes that it is an opportune time for the Government and employers to work together to enable all staff transferring from pre to post-1992 institutions to remain in the USS, and for new staff in post-1992 institutions to have the opportunity to join the USS."

* The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist says: "Pension issues continue to make the headlines and talks are in progress between the Government, university and other TPS employers and the unions to decide how to implement the new pension arrangements introduced by the 2004 Finance Act by June 2006. The Government has put a maximum cost on any package of pension improvements, which means that only some improvements can be agreed. Consider your situation carefully but if you want the 25 per cent lump sum option included, you should contact your union and insist they support it."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party.

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