Panel recommendations could ‘quickly resolve’ USS pensions row

Universities Superannuation Scheme cautions that making governance changes swiftly could be challenging

December 17, 2019
Source: Eleanor Bentall

Unions and employers have indicated that the recommendations of a joint expert panel could be key to solving the dispute over the UK’s biggest pension fund, but there are questions about how quickly the changes could be implemented.

The second report of the JEP says that the valuation process of the Universities Superannuation Scheme is “no longer fit for purpose” and that the main bodies involved in it – including Universities UK and the University and College Union – “do not work well together”.

The valuation – and the accompanying debate over the level of employer and employee contributions needed to protect scheme benefits – are at the heart of ongoing industrial action on dozens of campuses.

The latest JEP report calls for the adoption of a simpler valuation methodology that can be accepted by all.

Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said that swift implementation of the recommendations could help to “quickly resolve” the industrial dispute and allow for lower contributions than currently proposed, “as long as the parties move forward in a meaningful way”.

“Moving forward, employers have to make sure they do listen to us, so that the voice of members isn’t squeezed out,” Dr Grady told Times Higher Education.

Julia Buckingham, UUK president, said that the panel had made a “helpful set of recommendations”.

Sir David Eastwood, chair of the USS trustees, said that the report was “ambitious” and that the board was ready to work with the UCU and UUK.

However, the USS added that governance issues were complex and that some could be addressed more readily than others. “We must also be mindful of the challenging timetable for completing the 2020 valuation on time,” a statement said.

The JEP report questions the structure of the UUK-UCU joint negotiating committee on the USS, suggesting the creation of a high-level steering committee involving the UCU general secretary and a senior employer representative.

It says that the USS’ approach to risk is “overly prudent” and that there should be a focus on “articulating, calibrating and reconciling” the risk appetites of employers, employees and the fund.

It also advocates the consideration of a “50:50” contribution rate where members choose to pay half the standard level of contributions for their pay band in return for half the accrual, while employers continue with standard contribution rates. This could be attractive to members early in their careers and reduce the number of these staff opting out of the scheme. Another idea is tiered contributions based on salary.


Print headline: Valuation changes ‘could resolve pensions row’

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Reader's comments (1)

I am willing to bet the report resolves nothing. USS say they need more money to meet their commitments. UCU currently refuse to pay more and demand no cut in benefits. UUK currently refuse to pay more. UCU and UUK agree in so far as they both want USS to embrace optimism thus as a paper exercise apparently shrink the deficit and remove the need for increase in payments. USS state they have legal constraints on their optimism (one can argue they have taken far too optimistic a view in the past). The report changes nothing. It does not put more money in, it does not disclose a new hitherto undiscovered investment strategy and it does not find some magic way of shrinking the cost. Rather it says make an agreement everyone sticks too, duh the whole problem. So we are back to the infernal circle. Everyone as the amateur actuary and amateur pensions regulator. Why don't UCU offer to run the scheme with the set level of contributions, those members that know this will work can join it. If it goes wrong its on the members, that is no backstop. However to hear the assurances of this or that investment strategy who needs a backstop anyway? Employers who do have better data and more resource to analyse the problem, let this fester since the early 2000's. Cowardly and / or dishonest and / or self serving people with big salaries filled their boots with a scheme that was clearly going to come unstuck. USS itself was a cozy sinecure that denied the problem in the face of mounting evidence until it exploded.