Whistleblowing professor Jane Hutton fired from USS board

Pension fund chair says Warwick statistician had ‘breached a number of her director’s duties’, but insists probe was ‘completely separate’ to investigation of her claims

October 11, 2019
Strike placards

The whistleblower who raised concerns about the governance of UK higher education’s main pension scheme has been fired from her position on the fund’s board.

The Universities Superannuation Scheme said that an independent investigation into the conduct of Jane Hutton, a trustee representing the University and College Union, had “found that she had breached a number of her director’s duties owed under company law and contract”.

As a result, the USS board has unanimously decided to dismiss Professor Hutton, according to a letter circulated to vice-chancellors by Sir David Eastwood, the board’s chair.

In the letter, Sir David, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, insists that the probe into Professor Hutton was “completely separate” from the investigation of her whistleblowing allegations.

Instead, he says, the investigation was launched after directors raised concerns that her conduct “was affecting the board’s ability to function and to perform its duties in the interests of members and beneficiaries”.

Sir David continues that the details of the investigation – conducted by the law firm Slaughter and May – “are confidential and we cannot discuss them in further detail”.

But he does say that Slaughter and May had “made recommendations, some of which concerned potential improvements to policies and procedures. The board is actively considering the recommendations in this regard.”

Professor Hutton told Times Higher Education: “I do not accept the validity of the process they have followed or the validity of the decision. Clearly I will be taking further action.”

The row over the fate of Professor Hutton, professor of statistics at the University of Warwick, has run in parallel to the long-running industrial dispute over proposed changes to USS benefits and contributions – the subject of an ongoing strike ballot.

Professor Hutton claimed that she had been obstructed in her bid to investigate an alleged error in the calculation of the fund’s deficit, a key point of contention in the debate about whether employers and staff needed to increase their contributions.

In June, she told THE that an investigation had been launched into her conduct, and it then emerged that she had been suspended from the board.

In a letter to vice-chancellors last month, she said that she “can only assume that the suspension arises from my persistence in seeking the necessary information”.

In his letter, Sir David says that the USS had investigated Professor Hutton’s whistleblowing allegations and that the fund’s “responses to her many and varied requests for information were extensive, considered, and overall reasonable in the circumstances. The board’s view on this has been supported by the findings of external experts.”

These external experts had “concluded that no changes needed to be made to the outcome of the 2017 valuation”, Sir David adds. “No material issues have been raised by any of the expert advisers engaged by the trustee in relation to the 2017 valuation.”

Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said she was “extremely disappointed” by the decision to remove Professor Hutton from the board, arguing that the academic had “brought serious issues around governance and the valuation to light, which should have been properly investigated”.

“We have concerns about how the whole process has been conducted, especially as Jane Hutton was not given proper access to all the evidence used against her, nor afforded the opportunity to appear before the board to put her case,” Dr Grady said. “We now call on the USS to release the evidence in full for us all to study.”

Professor Hutton’s tenure on the board was due to conclude at the end of the month, and the UCU has begun looking for her replacement.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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