Pension-reform lobby group was backed by public money

£627,000 award to employers from funding chiefs underwrote PR and catering. John Morgan writes

July 8, 2010

University employers made their case to end final-salary pensions with the help of £6,000 of public money given to them by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, with thousands spent on public relations and catering, it has emerged.

The Employers Pensions Forum (EPF), a group of vice-chancellors and senior sector figures that has tabled formal proposals for changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, has been funded solely by Hefce and the Scottish Funding Council.

The Hefce money, totalling £6,000 over two years, financed a series of EPF reports analysing options for the sector's pensions, such as merging universities' individual schemes for support staff.

But it also covered spending that was closely tied to the employers' side of the argument on USS reform, including a PR campaign mounted against the rival proposals submitted by the University and College Union, in which the employers attacked the UCU's position as the sole representative of USS members.

The biggest EPF project, which cost £334,000, included: £60,000 spent on an expert actuary who supported the EPF's stance; £15,000 on building a website; £16,000 on "communications"; £45,000 on legal advice; and £10,000 on room hire and catering.

It also included a briefing for the national press by an external PR firm, in which the employers argued that government intervention is inevitable without their reforms.

A crunch meeting between the EPF and the UCU on the USS' future was due to take place on 7 July.

The employers want to put new entrants on reduced career-average schemes, while the union wants to retain final-salary deals for all staff, with higher member contributions.

Michael MacNeil, the UCU's head of higher education, writes in a letter to Sir Alan Langlands, Hefce's chief executive: "To my knowledge, the trade unions representing the views of the employees in the sector were not consulted or involved in the development of these (EPF) projects."

Mr MacNeil asks Sir Alan to advise whether "an application for funding for research on pensions from a trade union or unions would be received positively".

A Hefce spokesman said the funding body "has a legitimate interest in supporting the sector to improve its reward strategies", adding that approaches to its Leadership, Governance and Management Fund from "other stakeholders" would be "considered in the same light" as those from the EPF.

In an apparent reference to the room hire and catering spending, the spokesman said the EPF project aimed to further negotiations with unions, both formally and "through less formal meetings, seminars and training events".

An EPF spokesman said the group's work covered all pension schemes across the sector, including efforts "to retain an attractive and affordable USS scheme".

"Communicating the challenges in all schemes to both employers and employees, and the necessity for change to USS in particular, is vital and the EPF website has been established to provide this," he said.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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