This page used to host a template letter, written by GH tutors, but has been temporarily unpublished due to University management requests. If you are a GH tutor at the University of Edinburgh, and would like to know how other tutors explain their working conditions to students, please get in touch with the organisers of the UCU PG & PD Network and/or attend their next meeting at 15.00 – 16.00, Wednesday 24 October at the Union Offices.
Tuesday 26th September, 4.30-6.00
Appleton Tower Lecture Theatre 3
UCU National Pensions Officer Christine Haswell will be visiting the University on Tuesday to discuss with us the current USS Pensions Consulations.
One of these (1) is between USS and the Universities (UUK) regarding the assumptions which will be used to calculate the current position. The USS Trustee is asking the universities to comment on its proposed assumptions for this calculation. The consultation closes on September 29th. You may have seen reports of huge deficits in the press and it does indeed look like there will be a stated deficit of somewhere around 5 billion Pounds should the current method of calculation be accepted.
However this has been controversial. The basis of the calculation is something called “Test1”. The maths is complicated but the essence of it is the requirement by the Pensions Regulator for these to be done with some regard for prudence. UCU doesn’t disagree with the need for such prudence but argue that USS are being so prudent that they will undermine the pension scheme.
USS are basically arguing for the derisking of the investments of the fund from equities and property into a portfolio consisting of the much safer bonds consisting of Treasuries and company bonds. UCU counter that this would mean a reduction in earnings by the fund of 2% per annum, which compounded out to the 30 year horizon which the fund looks at, is what produces the deficit. There’s a good explanation of this at (2).
USS’s position is that either contributions need to increase by 6.6% of our salaries to fund the consequences of this derisking, or further (as in on top of those in 2011 and 2016) cuts in benefits will be necessary. The employers have been very clear in saying that they will not increase contributions from their current 18% and I think it’s safe to say that we won’t be increasing our contributions from 8% of salary to 14.6% of salary.
UCU hired its own actuaries, First Actuarial, to analyse the position of the fund if this level of pessimism was avoided and look at where we’d be if we simply stayed in a mix of bonds, equities and bonds. They found that given a reasonable assumption (with margin for prudence included) of the extra growth this entails, this would be sufficient to pay the fund’s liabilities (our pensions) in the future. Arguably they are essentially predicting a current surplus. The to and fro of this debate is explained at (2).
It looked for a while as if the employers would be given only USS’s pessimistic assumptions to consider, but one of our colleagues, Sam Marsh, started an online petition at (3) to demand that USS show its workings and that the figures by our actuaries be considered. That’s been successful, but I’d strongly advise that you still sign the petition because it will demonstrate that USS members are not simply shrugging their shoulders, but are engaged in this crucial debate about their future incomes.
Finally, you’ll have recently received a message from Sally Hunt regarding our own consultation on industrial action to defend our pensions. Those of you who know me will understand that I’d absolutely say that we should take such action only as a very last resort. However, after years of our pensions funds being cut and chipped at, I think we’ve got there.
The more alarmist of our colleagues are saying that there may even be a plan to move us from a defined benefit scheme (shared pension fund and shared risk) to the defined contribution schemes now all too common elsewhere. Up to now I’d have been skeptical enough to ridicule this idea. Now I’d have to take an agnostic position because it no longer looks impossible. Certainly running down such a large fund in bonds would be easier than with one invested in equities.
For that reason I’d recommend a “Yes” in the industrial action ballot, to give our negotiators a stronger position; that you sign the petition for the same reason; and that you come along to the meeting on Tuesday.
Honorary Treasurer and Pensions Officer
The Annual Equality Groups Conference 2017 will take place 23 – 25 November 2017. It will take place at Novotel Birmingham Central.
This conference is an opportunity to discuss and agree strategies to progress equality issues at work. The three days includes separate sessions for black, disabled, LGBT and women members. A joint plenary session brings us all together as well as separate workshops for FE and HE members. Plenty of opportunities to network too.
For more information and to register click on the link below.
‘[W]hat makes the usually young, always passionately committed, hourly paid teachers and contract researchers I talk to even angrier than their exploitative treatment by universities is that whenever the issue of casual contracts is aired, their existence is denied, swept under the carpet or explained away as a perk. … These people are the future of our profession, yet the sector treats them as if they are expendable – using employment models one might expect to find in a Sports Direct warehouse, but not a university.’
The USS pension scheme has produced a report on its draft valuation, but that report has been sent only to university management and is not publicly available. There’s a good chance that employers will try to force complete closure of Defined Benefits, especially if we don’t challenge the valuation.
There is now a 38 Degrees petition to call on USS to release this report and all associated papers on methodology and inputs. Please do sign and spread the word, as it’s crucial that this draft valuation gets proper scrutiny.
From Carlo Morelli, NEC and member of the UCU Joint Negotiating Committee on USS.
USS Pensions: Lies, damned lies and valuations
The employers and USS are planning to destroy our pensions in the pre-92 university sector. Recent reports from the Financial Times (subscription only but see below*) and THES, based upon the USS Annual Reports and Accounts, rehash the same old story of rising liabilities and insufficient funds in the pension scheme to pay for pensions. As ever the same solution is identified; members pay more, work longer and get less.
The simple thing that is wrong with these statements is that they compare a value today with an expected value for the future. No one would say that if you owned a £250,000 house, because it might be worth £1m in 40 years’ time you have a £750,000 deficit! Yet that is precisely the nature of claims about our pension scheme that are being made by those who want to destroy it.
Valuation and the “deficit”
The valuation of the USS pension scheme is currently under discussion between UCU, USS and the employers, and a figure has to be agreed for its future value. The valuation of its current assets is relatively easy to undertake – around £60bn depending upon share prices on any particular day. But the cost of providing our pensions decades into the future is wide open to interpretation. We don’t know what our salary increases will be in the future, or what mortality rates will be for members in decades to come, nor how high inflation or interest rates will be, or what rates of return on our assets will be in future decades. It is this last figure, the calculation of the future rate of return on assets (known as “the discount rate”) where there is the greatest variation in valuation estimates.
The Tories, aided by the private sector pensions industry, have been seeking to undermine collective pensions for decades. The choice of valuation method is intrinsically a political not economic one.
In recent years, USS settled upon one figure which demonstrated a so called ‘deficit’. Their methodology for choosing this figure was severely criticised and as a result they are working on a spread of values, some more conservative (generating a deficit) than others (generating a surplus).
They are also moving away from their previous much-criticised Gilts+ method of calculating the returns on our investments using a measure of inflation (CPI). But these valuations are so sensitive that a tiny change in the CPI measure (0.5% for example) can create or wipe out any deficit. At present, many estimates from USS show the scheme to be in surplus while others show a deficit.
There are two fundamental reasons why we should not trust these deficit estimates. First, they all assume that rates of return on assets will be much lower than has been the case historically, and potentially, even negative in real terms. There is ample historical data to suggest such a scenario cannot be found in the past and is not a likely outcome. Second, they assume that Higher Education is more vulnerable to going bankrupt than is plausible.
Education is not a sector which is likely to disappear. We are not comparable to a technology such as black and white television in which a new technology will wipe away an old technology. Does anyone really believe that there will not be a higher education sector in forty years time? Does anyone seriously believe that the 40 largest universities in the UK (responsible for over 70% of USS contributions) or the 70 largest universities in the UK (responsible for over 90% of USS contributions) are all likely to go bust together?
Pay more and get less
The likelihood is that USS will choose a deficit figure deliberately to create an outcome where members are told to accept cuts in benefits or increases in contributions. Given the unreliability and arbitrary nature of the valuation method, and the fact that university staff are locked into USS, this looks like a conscious con trick.
Worse, either outcome will undermine the scheme in terms of members’ confidence. Already, in comparison with other pension schemes – such as the Teachers’ Pension Scheme operating in the post-92 Universities – USS looks like poor value. The result will be increasing numbers of people stopping paying into USS, further undermining it in the future.
This blog post by Henry Tapper also gives a very useful analysis of the pension situation.