Employers vs. UUK? Evolving positions in the USS pensions dispute

Number 12: #USSbriefs12

Susanne Hakenbeck, University of Cambridge

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During the pensions dispute over the last few months, eyes have been very much on UUK (Universities UK) as the representative body of university employers. Yet the specifics of UUK’s position have remained elusive in its public communications, delivered via an occasionally comically incompetent social media team. A lack of information about its chosen negotiators in the dispute has contributed to the sense of UUK as a shadowy entity with monolithic views determined by its CEO Alistair Jarvis. This obscures the fact that UUK is a loosely configured organisation that represents varied employers in this dispute: mostly pre-92 institutions (but also some post-92 institutions with staff on USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme) pensions, specialist institutions such as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Oxbridge colleges.

The exclusive focus on communications from UUK has obscured the significant impact that local activism has had in shifting the narrative at different institutions. This activism has in turn contributed to shifts in UUK’s position in negotiations. In a dispute where university staff have often been told by their institutions that there is no alternative to reductions in pension benefits due to institutional financial constraints, it is worth considering the many institutions across the country that have indeed begun to shift their position, opening up alternatives, in response to local activist pressure.

1. The start of the dispute: the USS UUK Survey of September 2017

The answers to the USS UUK Survey of September 2017 provide a useful baseline for institutional positions at the beginning of the dispute. As a spokesperson for UUK revealed, 116 of more than 350 employers responded to this survey. Neil Davies, University of Bristol, put out Freedom of Information (FoI) requests for institutional responses. Twenty-five institutions did not respond to the requests (by refusing, delaying or claiming not to have retained copies of their response). A further 39 institutions had not participated in the USS UUK Survey and thus had no responses to provide. Twenty-eight institutions provided copies of their responses and it was possible to reconstruct the positions of a further eight institutions on the basis of their communications. Though these 36 responses represent only a quarter of the 116 institutions that participated in the survey, they can be used to suggest the starting position of employers in the dispute.

Of the 36 known responses, 20 stated in the survey that they accepted the level of risk proposed by the USS trustee and 16 desired ‘less’ or ‘significantly less’ risk to be taken. If we exclude Oxbridge colleges (because of controversy over how their submissions were counted and strong evidence for Bursars agreeing to submit coordinated responses, see USSbriefs13), then Oxford, Cambridge, Bangor, Bristol, St Andrews, Heriot Watt and Dundee remain as advocates for less risk to be taken. The remaining 17 institutions in my small sample accepted the current level of risk proposed by the USS trustee. We only know the position of 28 institutions regarding the future character of the pension scheme. Of these 20 wanted to see a move to full DC in their consultation response.

Looking at individual institutions’ responses, a wide range of positions was evident at the start of the dispute. Some institutions responded in a particularly hawkish way. Principal among these were Cambridge and the Bursars of certain Cambridge colleges. Jesus, Fitzwilliam, King’s, Lucy Cavendish and St Catharine’s College all submitted the same text, advocating for significantly less risk to be taken by the trustee, as well as for the sectionalisation of the scheme. Oxford similarly advocated for less risk and sectionalisation. Brasenose, Pembroke and Hertford colleges followed suit.

The response by Bangor University stands out, not only for advocating sectionalisation, but also for wishing to provide variable pensions benefits to staff at Bangor, with no apparent concern for equality or intergenerational fairness. The University of Bristol lays its cards on the table, declaring that investment in pensions is not a priority and may even be a public relations issue. The Universities of Birmingham, Lancaster, Bristol, and the London School of Economics are also advocates for sectionalisation in various forms.

In contrast to these more radical responses, six universities (University College London, Durham, King’s College London, Warwick, London School of Economics, Birmingham, Lancaster, Queen Mary London) wished to retain some DB (Defined Benefit), as did possibly three of the Cambridge colleges (Homerton, Peterhouse, Pembroke). Most of these, but also some of the more hawkish institutions, expressed doubt in some aspects of the valuation process. Warwick was exceptionally critical of proposed changes, being concerned that a switch to DC (Defined Contribution) could destabilise USS investments, and that institutional knowledge and expertise in the USS investment team could be lost. LSE was of the opinion that it ‘is too soon for further changes to be made’. Queen’s University Belfast was concerned about the usefulness and impact of Test 1 (concerning the highly unlikely scenario of a mass employer closure which causes employer contributions to dry up). Lancaster ‘would also not want USS to take an overly prudent approach’. LSE and Newcastle did not agree with the Pensions Regulator that the covenant is ‘tending to strong’ rather than ‘strong’. Bristol suggested ‘asking Government for a Crown guarantee’. Finally, LSE and Lancaster expressed worry about comparability of USS benefits with the TPS (Teachers Pension Scheme).

2. Changes in position since the start of industrial action

The impact of the industrial action has been felt strongly across the sector, with institutions issuing alarmed statements to students and often disapproving messages to staff. A considerable number of institutions have limited themselves to passing on information about the dispute from UUK and USS as the dispute developed. Many expressed sentiments of powerlessness, claiming to have limited agency in a dispute that is not with them but with UUK and the unavoidable financial situation.

However, a number of institutions have shifted their positions quite significantly since the start of the dispute. Across the sector, there have been calls for a Joint Expert Panel to conduct an independent valuation. Led initially by Imperial College London, a majority of institutions is now in support of such a panel, and provisions for convening one, indeed, entered the ACAS-mediated offer from 12 March, as well as the more recent offer from 23 March.

More remarkable is the large number of institutions that publicly professed to change their positions regarding their risk appetite and the desirability of DB, or that have always been supportive of employees’ demands. These are institutions with high levels of scholarly self-governance (Oxbridge and their colleges); where the University and College Union (UCU) is institutionally recognised (e.g. Birkbeck, Durham, Loughborough, Glasgow); or where students have occupied university buildings (Exeter, Sussex, Cambridge, Bristol, Royal Holloway, Sheffield and others).

Almost all institutions with high levels of self-governance have fully retracted more cautious approaches to risk and have expressed severe criticism both of the way the consultation was conducted and of the valuation parameters. At Oxford, for example, this nearly caused a crisis of governance.

Many institutions where UCU is recognised appear to have had a more ‘benign’ management even before the conflict began. This is likely due to long-term building of trust and the role of the UCU in holding university management to account. Glasgow particularly stands out here. Its vice chancellor, Anton Muscatelli (who is also on the UUK board), publicly stated that the university’s position is ‘very close to UCU position’ (27 February 2018). Similarly, Loughborough’s vice chancellor, Robert Allison, wrote in a letter to Alistair Jarvis that he had ‘hoped that DC could have been avoided’ and called for a return to the September valuation (11 January 2018). Durham’s vice chancellor, Stuart Corbridge, committed the university to increasing employer contributions to 20% if this were to contribute to the long-term stability of USS (22 February 2018). In a recent letter to Alistair Jarvis, Birkbeck’s Master, David Latchman, urged UUK to ‘build on the new proposals [the ACAS-mediated offer of 12 March] to provide an “affordable and sustainable” solution’ (14 March 2018).

Finally, the widespread student occupations following UCU’s rejection of the ACAS-mediated offer of 12 March have had a significant impact, showing the extent of student support for the strike action. At Cambridge, students successfully asked the vice chancellor, Stephen Toope, to a public meeting in which they questioned him about his position regarding risk and earlier threats to withhold pay for ASOS (action short of a strike). This contributed to a significant turn-around in his position a week later. At Royal Holloway, the Principal was pressured by occupying students to send a letter to Alistair Jarvis and Sally Hunt (20 March 2018) in which he expressed concern about rapid de-risking and committed the university to DB. Southampton’s VC, Christopher Snowden, backed a proposal by several staff members to make a twenty-year commitment to making employer contributions of 18% which they believe would underwrite the health of the pension fund.

3. Successful strategies

Forceful and persistent UCU branches, university and college members exercising self-governance, and visible student support have been very successful in bringing about movement in the positions of university management since the start of the dispute. Universities’ vice chancellors in turn give UUK a mandate for negotiating. The gains that have been made in the dispute so far are entirely founded on strong local activism. At the start of the dispute staff were told that a move to DC would be financially unavoidable. Yet, a range of universities have now offered up solutions to the dispute that were not on the table when the action began. Industrial action focuses the minds and reveals solutions where previously there seemed to be no alternatives. We cannot know the outcome of our dispute, but the evidence so far shows that industrial action works. We should keep up the pressure.


This paper represents the views of the author only. The author believes all information to be reliable and accurate; if any errors are found please contact us so that we can correct them. We welcome discussion of the points raised and suggest that discussants use Twitter with the hashtag #USSbriefs12; the author will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Clarification regarding the advocation of sectionalisation by Universities of Birmingham, Lancaster, Bristol, and the London School of Economics has been added on Sunday 8 April 2018. The wording has been approved by the author.

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