Union accuses employers of 'trickery' as pension pot proves far from empty

University employers say that the UK sector's £30 billion pension fund is performing better than expected - proof that "draconian" cuts to benefits were not needed, a union has claimed.

August 11, 2011

Credit: Olivia Harris/Reuters

Changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, set up for academics and senior administrators in pre-1992 institutions, have led to a bitter dispute between employers and the University and College Union.

The UCU is balloting for further industrial action in the new academic year over the issue.

In an internal document produced in July, the Employers Pensions Forum (EPF) outlines expectations about the triennial USS valuation, required by the Pensions Regulator and currently under way.

"Early indications are that the scheme is likely to be around 98 per cent funded (based on 2008 assumptions) and that the deficit is expected to be lower than was predicted in the 2010 actuarial report," the document states.

This means that the scheme would have 98 per cent of the funding needed to cover its pension liabilities.

Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, said: "We have maintained throughout the dispute that draconian changes were not required to maintain the USS and this appears to confirm that view."

However, the employers argue that even with a funding level of 98 per cent (calculated on the "technical provisions" basis required by the Pensions Regulator), the USS will still have a £1 billion deficit, meaning that its trustees must agree a recovery plan with the regulator.

Ms Hunt questioned the actuarial assumptions used in the valuation, arguing that it was "quite possible" that the scheme "is in fact over 100 per cent funded", but that "employers needed to keep the valuation under 100 per cent for political purposes".

An EPF spokesman said that the "assumptions are set by the USS trustee board on the advice of the scheme actuaries".

Changes to the USS, including a cap on inflation-proofing for pensions and the end of final-salary benefits for new members, are scheduled to be introduced on 1 October.

The EPF, which is funded by public money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, had previously issued warnings about deficits.

One advert issued by the body in May last year said: "With the scheme showing a deficit of £17 billion in historic funding levels in March 2010, all those involved accepted that change is needed."

Ms Hunt said: "All sorts of tricks have been used to misinform members about the health of the scheme - including a taxpayer-subsidised advert based on a snapshot of the scheme's value, rather than a proper valuation."

An EPF spokesman said the point about the historical deficit was "never dressed as anything else", and that the scheme changes were "very moderate".

A USS spokesman said that mortality assumptions in particular "will be increased" over the coming months - thus raising the deficit - with the final valuation published in early 2012.


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