Oxford poised to reverse position on USS pensions dispute

Vice-chancellor convenes special council meeting after academics vote overwhelmingly to change institution’s stance

March 7, 2018
UCU pensions sign
Source: Alamy

The University of Oxford was poised to reverse its position on UK higher education’s pensions dispute in the face of widespread criticism from its academics.

Louise Richardson, the institution’s vice-chancellor, said that the university council would meet on 7 March and would consider a proposal to reverse its response to a survey conducted by Universities UK, in which Oxford called for a reduction in the level of risk that employers were exposed to by the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

It was this desire for derisking – supported by 42 per cent of employers in the UUK survey – that led to UUK’s proposal to end the element of the USS that guarantees members a certain level of income in retirement.

This reform – which the University and College Union claims would leave members £10,000 worse off annually in retirement – triggered strike action at 65 UK higher education institutions, which is now in its third week.

Oxford’s apparent U-turn came after a resolution to reverse the university’s position at a meeting of its governing body was blocked on 6 March. Twenty members of the congregation stood up as the motion was introduced, automatically suspending the debate – a move that Professor Richardson said that she supported.

Many academics then walked out of the debate in protest and held a symbolic vote outside, calling for the university to change its position by 418 votes to two.

In a statement issued on 7 March, Professor Richardson said: “In light of the depth of feeling of so many colleagues we will convene a special meeting of council today at noon and will be recommending that council reverse its response to the UUK survey in line with congregation’s resolution.”

Professor Richardson added that she hoped that academics would be able to work together to help bridge the divide between the UCU and UUK.

“The future of our pensions is a shared interest for so many members of this university that we must try to find common ground,” she said. “In the coming days we will look for ways to improve our engagement with staff so that all members of our community are able to speak and be heard on this very important issue.”

Oxford’s involvement in the UUK survey has been particularly controversial because it has since emerged that a significant number of votes to reduce the level of risk in the USS came from colleges of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, which were counted on top of the views of their parent institutions.

King’s College, Cambridge, and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, have since said that their support for reducing risk in the survey did not reflect their positions.

Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, described Professor Richardson’s statement as “very welcome”.

It comes after two more vice-chancellors, Sir Keith Burnett at the University of Sheffield, and Robert Allison at Loughborough University, opted to join staff on the picket lines.

A UUK spokesman said that talks between employers and the UCU at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service would resume on 7 March.

sophie.inge@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

A good old strike during term time....finally something that gets the VCs worried.
The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford wrote a circular email today in which she said, 'We will convene a special meeting of council today at noon and will be recommending that council reverse its response to the UUK survey in line with congregation’s resolution.' It is not made clear who the 'we' are. Nor does Oxford's Council necessarily have authority to change what was originally said, any more than it necessarily had authority to say it. Oxford's Council is not the supreme authority in the University. Its sovereign body is Congregation, comprised of its eligible academic and academic-related staff. But although Congregation certainly created a Resolution asking for a 'reversal' of Oxford's response through UUK, it had not held a debate or a valid vote. The Resolution remains in effect a mere proposal, awaiting ratification. The Resolution 'instructs the Vice Chancellor to change Oxford's answer to question 3a in the USS consultation, from Rejection to Acceptance of the level of risk proposed, by the USS. trustees'. She is of course a member of UUK but she did not, constitutionally, have personal authority to commit the University in the first place. The lesson? A constitution which has evolved successfully for more than eight hundred years should be respected for the better protection of the future of the University. Oxford will only have taken a position on the future shape of the USS when Congregation decides and in the meantime much better clarity about powers of authorisation seems desirable in all quarters. Professor G.R.Evans

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