Listless reply to USS consultation

Employers and critics offer divergent interpretation of 1 per cent response rate. John Morgan reports

December 2, 2010

A "defective" consultation on major changes to higher education's largest pension scheme has generated response rates as low as 1 per cent, while the University of Cambridge has agreed to hold a full ballot after pressure from staff.

A consultation on changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme proposed by employers - including the end of final-salary pensions for new entrants, a pension age of 65 for all members and pension increases capped at a lower rate of inflation - runs until 22 December.

Some of the scheme's 130,000 active members are unhappy with the nature of the consultation, a legal requirement, which is being run by individual universities and the USS and presents only the employers' case for change.

Government guidance sets minimum requirements for employers in such consultations, saying they can provide "more information if considered appropriate".

A spokesman for the Employers Pensions Forum (EPF) said the "consultation seeking individual members' views on each of the changes goes far beyond the legal requirements for employers to consult with members' representatives".

At the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where academics have a strong role in governance, about 350 staff signed motions calling for a "consultative ballot" allowing scheme members to choose between the rival plans put forward by the EPF and the University and College Union, which has an equal say in running the scheme.

The motions argue that meaningful consultation "must seek the views of those consulted when the latter have been provided with all the information necessary for them to make an informed response".

Cambridge's council has said it "agrees that consultative voting should take place as proposed, and is immediately setting the arrangements in hand".

Oxford's council referred the issue to a vote in the university's governing congregation, held as Times Higher Education went to press.

Robin Briggs, senior research Fellow and special lecturer in modern history, was expected to propose an amendment calling for a fresh consultation. He criticised the "unhelpful" examples provided by the USS on how the changes will affect individuals.

Mr Briggs called the present consultation "defective" and said it "must surely lay both USS and Oxford open to an appeal to the pensions regulator".

THE asked several universities what proportion of their USS members had responded to the official consultation, which began on 20 October. University College London and the universities of Birmingham and Salford put their response rates at 1 per cent. Cambridge said its rate was "very low".

A UCL spokesman said the institution was "not surprised" by the low response, citing "significant levels of press and internet coverage of the reason why changes were necessary" before the consultation began.

But Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, called the formal consultation "inadequate" and said the low turnouts "indicate that staff agree with us". About 30,000 active USS members will vote in the UCU's online "referendum" on the subject, she said.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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