Your USS Pension – What’s Going On?


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.

Michael Holmes
Honorary Treasurer and Pensions Officer



Pensions Petition

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.

Sign the Petition Now!

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.

Casualisation: Letter to HR

The following letter has been sent to Zoe Lewandowski, Director of HR.

 UCU Edinburgh Branch

Dear Zoe

As you will be aware, the issue of insecure contracts in the higher education sector now has a very high public profile. You will also know that this is a UK wide priority issue for the University and College Union.

We believe that we have a common interest in improving the contractual terms of employment of academic and related staff in higher education. While a few individuals may find them appropriate to their circumstances, the truth is that for the vast majority, insecure contracts have a seriously detrimental effect on their well being. The results of locally organised surveys of Guaranteed Hours staff have clearly demonstrated dissatisfaction about working conditions and staff engaged on casual contracts have expressed a strong desire for more secure employment.

We are pleased that the University of Edinburgh recognised our concerns on casual contracts some years ago and that in 2014 replaced the practice of engaging staff on “hours to be notified” (HTBN) with the introduction of the Guaranteed Hours (GH) contract. However, while the move away from the HTBN model was a positive step forward, in reality it just replaced one precarious contract of employment with another.

Addressing casualisation within the workforce remains a priority for UCU and we want to ensure that we have the appropriate mechanisms for monitoring and enhancing employment practices.

GH staff still report limited access to training and development, lack of career progression, lack of job security and inconsistent rates of pay. Although GH staff are guaranteed a minimum number of paid hours in an academic year, these hours are reviewed and renewed annually and some teaching staff report that their working hours remain unconfirmed the week before teaching starts. Indeed, in 2016-17, in some areas of the university GH tutors did not receive their contracts until after the teaching term had finished, leaving them working for an entire semester without a contract, which is dangerous to both the institution and the staff member in terms of securing teaching for students. In the same period, some staff on GH contracts report having been given such a low number of guaranteed hours on their contract that after a few weeks of teaching they were effectually on a zero hour contract with no secure pay (as they had worked the minimum number of hours stipulated in the contract) which leaves the university left without any certainty of having enough staff to teach students.

UCU is concerned that a significant amount of student teaching is being delivered by staff on GH contracts and that this will have an impact on learning and teaching quality. So, in addition to asking whether GH contracts are the most appropriate model of employment, we would question whether this model is the most appropriate. While there is a narrative repeated that most staff on GH contracts are PhD students who teach as part of their professional development, the reality is that many GH staff obtained their PhD many years ago, and are kept on as part of a kind of ‘pool’ of tutors to call in when needed. These postdoctoral tutors, who often teach not only on pre-honours but also honours and postgraduate levels, are not paid for research, which makes the University’s commitment to research-informed teaching ring hollow.

We believe that this should be a priority issue for both ourselves and the university, and we know that when we have negotiated in good faith we have seen positive progress in the interests of staff, students and universities. At the heart of the claim we are making is a call to establish a permanent joint mechanism for reviewing, monitoring and negotiating around the issue of secure contracts, building on our existing arrangements. We are calling on the university to make a commitment to work with us to reduce insecurity through this apparatus.

Specifically we are calling for negotiations on our claim which is the following:

1. The establishment of a standing joint review group with a remit to:

a) Review the GH contract model with a view to developing an alternative contractual model.

b) Monitor and review the arrangements under the Enhancing Employment strategy for transferring staff onto more secure contracts, and ensure that this is working effectively

c) Receive, review and monitor data on the employment of staff on non-permanent contracts

d) Review the working hours of GH tutors and demonstrators to ensure consistency of pay and allocation of marking and preparation time

e) Review the issue of training, support and career progression for GH tutors and demonstrators to ensure consistency across schools


2. An understanding from the University that this process will not be cost-neutral and agreement that investment in contractual employment that supports high quality research informed teaching will require additional resources.

We look forward to building on our positive negotiations on the Enhancing Employment strategy and welcome your response to our claim.

Yours sincerely,

Suzanne Trill
(UCUE Secretary)

Tutors and Demonstrators draft policy

The University of Edinburgh is currently reviewing its Code of Practice for Tutors and Demonstrators, for which UCU has been represented on

the university task group (for info see:

After several meetings there is now a draft policy out for consultation:

UCU postgraduate and postdoctoral reps and contacts have already been contacted to send in their views on the code, but other members (especially those in tutoring and demonstrating roles) are also invited to comment on the draft policy.

The university have highlighted specific areas that they would like feedback on:

  1. whether the document includes all necessary information and guidance;
  2. whether any key information or guidance is missing from the document;
  3. if relevant, how this document will relate to any School, subject-level or course-level documents that you provide your Tutors and Demonstrators.

The university is especially interested to hear your views on these issues:

  1. whether the University should limit the number of hours all full-time postgraduate tutors and demonstrators should work, and if so, what
    the limit should be (see Section 2.8)
  2. whether Schools should provide all tutors/demonstrators with access to a mentor (see Section 6.2);3.      whether the University should specify the knowledge/skills/training/support required for postgraduate students who are acting as tutors and
    demonstrators at certain levels (e.g. PGT level (See section 5)).

Please send any comments you may have to before 10th March.