A twentieth birthday party! Not for a beloved child - although it felt like it - but for a pension scheme called SAUL (Superannuation Arrangements for the University of London). It happened last week in a Georgian house in Bedford Square. I had been closely involved in the birth of the scheme which benefited all non-teaching staffs in London, Kent and elsewhere, roughly a quarter of the United Kingdom's university support staff.
I am a bit evangelical about pensions. A colleague, dragged reluctantly into the negotiations, admitted that he was at once terrified and bored out of his mind at the idea of pensions. He said that my enthusiasm alerted him to the political and economic importance of occupational pensions. He subsequently became a member of parliament.
The "birthday" scheme now has 15,000 members and Pounds 437 million in assets. My plan was to use it as the launching pad for a national superannuation scheme for all support staff in universities similar to the Universities Superannuation Scheme for academic and academic-related staff. Twenty years later this remains an aspiration rather than an achievement.
The trade unions thought they had made a breakthrough in 1984 when the (then) University Grants Committee wrote to the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals that " the impression received, of a system which cares for academics but appears to ignore legitimate aspirations of supporting staff, cannot be good for the image of any of us". The CVCP went through the motions by conducting a survey of universities starting with the enthusiastic leader "whilst remaining firmly opposed . . ." Unsurprisingly, it produced negative answers.
While the scheme flourished in the 1970s and 1980s occupational pensions then came under attack from a deregulating Government anxious to cut employers' overheads and reward friends in insurance and banking.
The excesses of Maxwell and the resulting Goode report have not entirely resolved issues of accountability and the potential misuse of power. The spotlight then focused on misleading advice on personal pensions and a blighted future for thousands of unlucky people.
I was inundated with requests for advice from union members being seduced by insurance companies into considering leaving occupational schemes. One married man with three young children was on the brink of leaving a scheme which provided generous death-in-service benefits, index-linking and spouses' pension for an insurance company's personal pension which provided none of these things. I said that the insurance representative should be reported to the police for fraud, and the member was sufficiently shocked to decide to remain in the occupational scheme.
The future of occupational pensions could still be insecure because of the personal pensions alternative. Those on low pay or short-term contracts, or young people, often vote with their feet and opt for the cheapest possible alternative and a bleak long-term future. If the feel-good factor is ever to return surely security and longterm planning for pensions and investments are ingredients for success.
One takes comfort that there are still many influential groups who enjoy index-linked occupational pensions - MPs and vice chancellors to name but two - who will ensure their continuation and, hopefully, a 40th birthday for the London support staff scheme. Happy birthday SAUL!
Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education students' union, a member of the TUC General Council and of the national executive of Unison.