How to constitute a Joint Expert Panel

Number 19: #USSbriefs19

Warren Pearce, University of Sheffield

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Whatever happens in the current Yes/No ballot, it seems likely that a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) will at some point be formed in order to examine the pension valuation. This brief provides advice on how to constitute a JEP and highlights why including a range of expertise beyond ‘actuarial science’ provides a more robust and accountable process for resolving the dispute.

One of the first ideas that emerged from universities as a means of solving the USS dispute was the formation of a panel of experts, chosen jointly by UUK and UCU, which would re-examine the controversial valuation of the USS pension scheme (see USSbriefs12). Unsurprisingly, the idea of handing over the problem to a group of experts to sort out has proved seductive within the sector, with a comfortable logic expressed succinctly by Imperial College:

We are an institution that prides itself on evidence-based analysis, and we are now calling upon UUK and USS to jointly convene an expert group, including both their advisers and leading academic experts, to provide full transparency on the assumptions, data and modelling approach that has been used.

Evidence-based analysis, leading academic experts, full transparency … how could university employees possibly position themselves against such things? Indeed, these demands have led to a strong move among the UCU’s membership for a ‘revise and resubmit’ response to the proposal: accepting the idea of a JEP in principle but demanding detailed clarifications and assurances, and especially an assurance that the pensions status quo will be maintained while the JEP sits, before being willing to suspend strike action. For an example see the ‘revise and resubmit’ proposal published by Lesley McGorrigan on 11 April. Such demands are surely reasonable, but their logic needs to be taken further. UCU members did not stand on picket lines in blizzards and sub-zero temperatures over a spreadsheet. They did so because of the destabilising effects on higher education of a fundamental downgrading of employees’ pensions, the third such move by UUK since 2011. This trend, in conjunction with increased marketisation, the role of pension consultants, and the neglect of equality concerns (USSbriefs4), demonstrate a certain set of political values that underpin the production and use of valuations by USS and UUK. As many of the USSbriefs have shown, the processes prompted by these values have up to now escaped democratic oversight, remaining concealed within obscure reports or beyond the remit of FOI requests.

Fortunately, there is ample academic analysis of how ‘expert forums’ function that can be drawn on to inform the process of composing a JEP. In particular, Sheila Jasanoff has argued that decades of research in Science and Technology Studies (STS) show how expert advice is ‘loaded with value judgements [regarding] which facts and disciplines are relevant; when is new knowledge reliable enough for use; which dissenting viewpoints deserve to be heard; and when is action appropriate’.

Two lessons from STS highlighted by Jasanoff are particularly relevant for a JEP as a means of addressing the present deadlock. First, expert advice tends to prioritise what is already known over what is unknown or beyond immediate reach. In the USS dispute, factors that fit easily into mathematical models (such as assumed discount rates) have been foregrounded by senior management, leaving it to other concerned stakeholders to highlight more existential, unquantifiable risks to UK higher education from the shift to DC (such as the British Academy’s argument that future researchers would be dissuaded from embarking on academic careers in the UK).

Second, the USS dispute echoes STS research in highlighting the importance of responsibility within significant technological changes (in this case, the technology is a new type of pension). Who would be responsible for anticipating and monitoring the ongoing effects of any shift to DC, particularly ones that are unintended and harmful for UK higher education? There are fundamental issues underpinning the deliberation of a JEP that require a broader inclusion of expertise beyond actuarial science and of values beyond those favouring further marketisation of higher education. The industrial dispute has brought a certain unruly democracy crashing into higher education, opening up spaces to discuss the effects of recent trends. Closing them down through a narrowly defined expert panel may be tempting for academics who like the idea of objective, mathematical judgements, but will not solve the key issues of which the USS dispute is a symptom, not a cause.

So what does this all mean for the process by which any JEP should be constituted — something that has attracted little or no attention in the debate on the UUK proposal to date? Here, I will draw on research by Kathryn Oliver and myself to highlight two lessons for UCU and UUK if any process of expert advice is to be legitimate and robust.

1. Appoint transparently. Everything about how the JEP functions, from its definition of its Terms of Reference onwards, will inevitably flow from the expertise and values represented within it. This makes the appointment process crucial. The UUK offer currently being voted on provides no details about the processes and criteria by which JEP members will be selected. Who will have the power to select members, and what oversight and powers will UCU and UUK members have over this process? What will the experts be experts in? Will they be selected to represent a broad range of expertise, will they be members of the old boys’ club, or will they be selected based on their number of online followers? Have they already been decided in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms? At the moment we do not know, and bearing in mind the poor quality of communication from both UCU and UUK in this dispute this is cause for some alarm.

2. Appoint widely. As stated above, we need a broader range of stakeholders involved in any expert process. This will help enable discussions to start from a desire to maintain current pension benefits for USS members, and thereby maintain the morale of the staff who collectively make up a key section of the British public and society, rather than financial considerations flowing from alternative priorities pursued by some within UK higher education. Unfortunately the text of the UUK proposal is silent on the range of stakeholders in the JEP.

In short, the USS dispute has highlighted the impacts of downgrading members’ pensions, and the divergence of values between UUK management and the majority of higher education employees. These issues must be addressed in any acceptable proposal to form a JEP. Expertise does not exist in a vacuum and a broader range of expertise is required than actuarial science. Getting this wrong, and relying on ‘objective’ pension valuations to get us out of our present fix, will only prolong the dispute far beyond what anyone in higher education wants to see.


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 #USSbriefs19; the author will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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