Ask the panel

February 10, 2006

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

My wife is an academic in an old university, and has a pension with the Universities Superannuation Scheme. From April 6, 2006, she will be able to make additional voluntary contributions to her pension scheme of up to 15 per cent. I work in a new university and am a member of the Teachers Pension Scheme. I would like to do the same as my wife. Will this be possible and, if not, why not?

* The lecturers' union Natfhe panellist says: "The modernisation of the Teachers Pension Scheme (TPS) is not as advanced as the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). This is due in some measure to the national negotiations with the Government that resulted in the Public Services Forum principles agreement on October 18, 2005.

This agreement set out a commitment to good-quality 'defined benefit', index-linked pension with protection for existing members of the scheme.

This could not be changed without further negotiations with the unions."

He adds: "There are a series of meetings planned for early 2006 and it is hoped that these will be concluded by the end of March 2006 to enable a final consultation - with the final details published by the end of June 2006."

The modernisation of the scheme is likely to include greater flexibility, the panellist says. "The TPS review group is considering whether or not to draw on the flexibilities being introduced from April 6, 2006 on the Pensions Tax Simplification agenda," he says.

"The unions are pushing for these and hope the present Inland Revenue limit of 15 per cent can be dropped to enable more to be used for the purchasing of Past Added Years and additional voluntary contributions."

He points out that from April 6 any member will be able to pay into any number of registered pension schemes and receive full tax relief up to the limit of their annual earnings, like stakeholder or personal pensions.

* Our Association of University Teachers panellist says: "This option, although available under the rules of the USS, is still subject to negotiation in relation to the TPS. Negotiations on this and a number of other changes required by the Public Services Forum agreement are taking place between the unions and the Department for Education and Skills."

She says that this question again highlighted the differences between the two schemes, which the AUT believes makes a strong case for a single pension scheme for all higher education, academic and related staff.

This was one of the recommendations in the Bett report on campus salaries in 1999.

"We would support all staff transferring from pre-1992 to post-1992 institutions being able to remain in the USS, and for new staff commencing work in post-1992 institutions having the opportunity to join the USS," the panellist says.

Universities UK has set up a working party to look at the future of pensions in higher education, including the option of a single pension scheme.

* The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association panellist confirms: "Under the new legislation, some of the changes to pension schemes are mandatory and others are optional. One of the optional changes is whether or not to remove the annual limit of 15 per cent of pensionable pay for additional contributions, following the relaxation of Inland Revenue restrictions."

He adds: "As you mention, the USS has made the decision to allow members to increase their additional contributions to 15 per cent.

However, the TPS and the Local Government Pension Scheme are in the process of consulting on this option, as well as a number of other improvements aimed at increasing the flexibility of the schemes.

"The final decision regarding this will therefore depend on the outcome of the consultation exercise, hopefully in the spring of 2006," the panellist says.

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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