USS – USE YOUR VOTE: Management’s Response to Our Queries

We submitted some specific questions to management in December. We have now published their response (below).

This non-committal reply demonstrates how important it is to Vote YES, YES in the current ballot: please post your ballot paper now!

(If required, replacement ballot papers can be requested here)

SENT ON BEHALF OF SARAH SMITH, UNIVERSITY SECRETARY

Dear colleagues

Thank you for your email of 5th December in which you asked a number of questions about the current discussions on USS.

You asked questions about the Court Sub Group. The Court Sub Group is made up of Court lay members: Alan Johnston (chair), Robert Black and Doreen Davidson. The Court Sub Group acts under delegated powers from full Court. The Court Sub Group reported back the key items at the December Court meeting. Court noted the response and discussed the importance of ensuring good communications with staff. CMG were kept informed on this issue through the Finance Director’s report. It would not have been appropriate to seek CMG’s agreement as that decision rests with the Court Sub Group.

You asked a number of further questions about the points made in the Senior Vice-Principal’s communication to all staff on 13 November, in particular about the University’s view about the subsequent proposal that was tabled on behalf of the employers by UUK. We understand that no agreement was reached at today’s meeting between UCU and UUK at the Joint Negotiating Committee and that the JNC is now expected to come to a decision on 23rd January, with further discussion between UCU and UUK in the interim. When we have a final decision on a firm proposal, our Court Sub Group will reconvene to consider this and we would be very happy to meet to discuss the detail further with you.

You ask a number of specific questions about the assessment of the sustainability of the scheme, referring to your understanding that a best estimate valuation gives the fund an £8billion surplus and that it takes in more than it gives out. Our understanding from the most recent USS actuarial valuation is that the scheme is in deficit in the order of £7.5billion as the fund needs to be valued on forward funding requirements and costs of the scheme, not solely on today’s activity level. As a ‘last man standing scheme’ USS requires collective responsibility – however the range of employers across the 300+ member institutions is huge with large differences in affordability, assets which could be offered as security and variations in approach. In the UoE response we were mindful of the potential impact on other employers and their ability to continue to participate (and the knock-on effect that would have if they couldn’t). The Pensions Regulator has re-assessed its view of the Employer covenant and is less convinced of the covenant strength that at the 2014 valuation. The opinion of The Pensions Regulator is not one we can or would ignore. It is inappropriate to view the Pensions Protection Fund (PPF) as a backup in this context as it only applies when there is a qualifying insolvency event in relation to the Employer, and where there are insufficient assets in the pension scheme to cover the Pension Protection Fund level of compensation. We remain committed to our covenant commitments.

You ask a number of supplementary questions. We would be happy to come back to you on these but think that that would be most productive when we have seen the full detail of whatever final proposal emerges. In the interim we would like to reiterate the view of the Court Sub Group: that the outcome of the current discussion should be one which is seen by staff to be fair and in the best interests, and should also provide stability for the future.

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Pensions: Our Response to Charlie Jeffery

USS_IconFollowing Professor Charlie Jeffery’s email to staff (13 Nov), UCU Edinburgh has through the Joint Unions Liaison Committee (JULC) requested answers to the following questions via the Combined Joint Consultative and Negotiating Committee (CJCNC).   

Our first set of questions arise from the email; these are followed by three supplementary questions. The italicised statements below are all taken from Professor Jeffery’s email, we would like answers to the ensuing questions.


“We, along with all other Universities that offer USS, were asked to respond to a number of questions on the USS Technical Assumptions, the method used to value the pension scheme.”

Can JULC have a copy of the University’s response to the USS Technical Assumptions, preferably ahead of our meeting (on the understanding that this would be kept confidential)?


“Our response was considered and agreed by a special Sub Committee of Court. “ 

JULC would like to know the following:

1) What was the membership of the sub-committee?

2) Has the full Court seen the response? Does it agree with it?

3) Has CMG seen the response? Does it agree with it?

4) Can we see the minutes of any meetings this sub-committee had?


“We said that we wanted the outcome to be something that is seen by staff to be fair and in their best interests.”  

Does University management believe the current UUK proposal is fair and in the best interests of staff?

If not, what steps have or will be taken to stress to UUK that their proposal does not meet this University’s criteria as communicated to staff?


“We confirmed that we would be willing to maintain the current level of employer contribution at 18%.

We also said that we were willing to consider alternative proposals for the amount of contribution if it would secure the long-term sustainability of the scheme.”

What consideration was given to increasing employer contributions in the line with the recommendations of the Trustees and why was this option rejected?

Do you acknowledge that the current proposal, while keeping the employers’ contribution at 18% results in an actual reduction in the amount going into fund future staff pensions from the employers as a higher amount is set aside for past deficit reduction, administration and costs? Is the implication that you would be prepared to pay more than 18%?


“We emphasised the importance of future pension arrangements being sustainable; attractive; valued; flexible; predictable and stable. 

We believe the current UUK proposal is none of these and especially it is not predictable, since Individual Defined Contribution schemes offer no guarantees. Again, what message will you send to UUK regarding their failure to meet your criteria?


“We recognised that there will be expectations from staff to maintain a defined benefit structure for USS.” 

Is the University committed in any way to supporting the expectations of staff?


” However, we expressed concern that changes to the threshold for defined benefit or a reduction in the accrual rate would be unlikely to solve the structural problem associated with USS, given the continuing issues around sustainability.” 

Do you recognise that any ‘structural problem’ with USS results purely from a ‘recklessly prudent’ approach to the valuation methodology? The fund takes in more than it pays out and on a best estimate valuation has an £8 billion surplus.


“We expressed particular concern about the impact of an unsustainable scheme on our staff, as well as on our institution. ”

 Why do you think the scheme is unsustainable, given that it brings in more than it pays out, is a last man standing scheme, backed by the employers’ covenant and ultimately the PPF?

Are you backing out of your covenant commitments?  If senior managements elsewhere are not committed to the covenant, what will you do to convince them to keep their promises?


“We recognised that maintaining the current structure would not address the recent trend of increasing deficits in the scheme (caused by liabilities growing faster than assets).” 

Again, do you recognise that the idea of liabilities growing faster than assets is

only true of the notional valuation and not of the actual performance of the Scheme as it is currently invested? If you do, then how can you communicate this to staff?


“This trend is driven by factors substantially out with our control or that of the Trustees. This could mean that the scheme might require regular review and possible further amendment.  We were concerned that constant revisions to the scheme benefits and structure might lead to mistrust and a lack of confidence in the scheme from the membership!”

 Do you realise that any lack of confidence in the scheme seems to rest solely with the pensions regulator, based on their lack of trust in the employers fulfilling their covenant?

Early discussion seemed to indicate that a majority of employers favoured some form of Defined Benefit.

What evidence do you have that the UUK negotiators are reflecting the majority position of employers, given e.g. the statement by the VC of Warwick that he is mystified by the proposals?


“We therefore stated that we thought it important to agree changes that would provide stability for the longer term. We proposed that detailed work should be done to develop options, including for a good quality, robust defined contribution scheme.

This work should clearly draw out the implications for employees of any move from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme, including the greater flexibility to access pension benefits in defined contribution schemes, resulting from recent changes in the law.

We were very clear in our response that we want to incentivise savings for retirement and do NOT want any changes to lead to any reduction in employers’ payment towards pension provision.  “

Again, do you acknowledge that keeping the employers’ contribution at 18% does result in a reduction of the amount being invested in future pension provision?


“We want the outcome to be a pension package that offers a high degree of certainty and is valued and supported by staff.” 

Given that the current proposal by UUK offers near zero certainty of anything, will you put to them that they need to come up with something better?


“We also recognised that this is an extremely complex area and suggested that robust yet simple models should be developed as the discussions progress so that staff can see clearly the implications of the final proposals. “

 Can we assume from this that you have so far seen no calculations as to what staff expectations might be? Can you please insist on this immediately?


Supplementary Questions

  1. Would you support an alternative to Individual Defined Contribution (IDC)such as Collective Defined Contribution (CDC) or a Wage in Retirement scheme (WinRS)?
  2. If the UUK proposals for IDC go ahead would you support opening to staff better alternatives to USS such as TPS?
  3. After a decade of reductions in benefits for increases in contributions, staff no longer trust USS. Similarly, given their reluctant acquiescence to such changes, employers no longer trust USS. If the UUK proposals go ahead would you agree to providing the same increases in salary in lieu of employer and employee pensions contributions, for staff wishing to quit USS, which you give to staff who have reached the Lifetime Allowance for pensions?

USS Ballot – Use Your Voice

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UCU’s higher education committee has agreed to launch an industrial action ballot in the dispute over the future of USS. They have said serious and sustained industrial action is required in the face of damaging proposals from the employers which would effectively destroy the pension scheme.

Your pension is under attack

  • The employers want to end guaranteed pension benefits.
  • They say your final pension should depend on how your ‘investments’ perform and not on your contributions.
  • We say it’s wrong to risk our members’ futures.
  • Vote Yes to strike action.
  • Vote Yes to action short of a strike.

The postal strike ballot opens on Wednesday 29 November

More details

Strike, 14th June

Our branch will be on strike on June 14.

Pickets will primarily be at Old College from 9-11am on June 14, where
there will be a meeting of the influential Central Management Group. If
you plan to picket or would like to volunteer to be a picket captain,
please email ucu@ed.ac.uk. Alternatively, on June 14, just come to the
union office at 12 Buccleuch Street at 8:45am to find where available
picket locations are.

A social event with light food will be follow at 11am-1pm (location to be
confirmed). Even if you aren’t available for picketing, feel free to stop
by and say hello to fellow members. This will also be a forum for people
to discuss anything they wish to raise.

The issues are pay, casualisation, and the gender pay gap. More
information can be found at www.ucu.org.uk.

You are NOT legally required to inform your line manager about your plans
for strike action before striking, and we recommend you do not. However,
you must answer truthfully if asked by your line manager after the fact.

We appreciate that June 14 is very soon. This is the first time that UCU
branches are striking on different dates at different universities across
the country. The national leadership decided that in the current
industrial action, each branch should select a day in June or July that
would be most effective locally. At this stage in the industrial dispute,
the branch committee was unwilling to call a strike on a day when a small
number of members would be much more strongly affected than the rest of
us, such as the graduation day for a particular school. Within this
constraint, we believe that June 14 is the most effective strike date in
the next two months.

We were legally obliged to wait until UCU nationally had officially
notified the University before issuing this notice to members.
Unfortunately this has led to you hearing both from both Sally Hunt and
UoE in advance of our notice, for which we apologise.

Guidance on Working to Contract

Brief guidance on Working to Contract issues.  This is taken from item 24 on the FAQ page:  https://www.ucu.org.uk/heactionfaqs

What should I tell my employer if they ask if I am participating in action relating to working to contract and to the maximum 37-hour week?

You should wait until you are asked by your manager or a person in authority whether you are participating in ‘action short of a strike’ and then answer as follows:

 Dear [Name],

As you will be aware, following a recent ballot, UCU is calling on its members to take continuous action short of strike from 27 May 2016. This is to take the form of working to contract. I am writing to inform you that I shall be working the hours stipulated in my contract and no more. Where my contract is silent on the hours I am expected to work, I will work no more than a total of 35 hours per week, or my pro rata equivalent to take account of my personal circumstances and the length of the normal working week in question. In addition, I will perform no additional voluntary duties, such as out of hours cover, or covering for colleagues, unless this is a contractual requirement, nor will I set and mark work beyond that which I am contractually obliged to set and/or mark, nor will I attend meetings where attendance is voluntary. I will not undertake duties that breach the University’s health and safety and I will work strictly in accordance with the university’s policies or procedures having contractual force.

As I will therefore complete my contractual duties on a weekly basis and in any one week I will not expect the University to make any deductions from my salary save in respect of any strike action which I might take. I will raise a formal grievance if I am deducted pay whilst I am working in accordance with my contract.

Strike Information (25 & 26 May)

strike1Volunteers needed

The Committee would be very grateful for as many members as possible to participate in the picket lines, or to assist in the branch office, on Wednesday 25th and Thursday 26th May. Please email ucu@ed.ac.uk if you’re able to help out.

Notifying UoE – your rights

The Committee is aware that some managers are being rather insistent in their requests for information on whether members will be taking strike action. You are under no obligation to tell them in advance – UCU HQ has already provided the University with the information required by law.

The UCU Strike FAQ page (https://www.ucu.org.uk/strikefaqs) states:

Q:           Do I have to tell my employer that I am taking strike action?

A:            It is often the case that managements will send out formal-sounding letters telling you to declare in advance whether you will be taking industrial action. This can have the effect of misleading and intimidating members. To be clear, you are under NO OBLIGATION to inform management in advance as to whether you will be taking part in strike action or action short of a strike. In order to fulfil legal requirements, employers have been provided with statistical information about UCU members taking industrial action, but not individual names. However, if your manager asks you after the strike whether you took action, you should answer truthfully.

Organising meeting

There will be a strike planning meeting on Monday 23rd May at 1pm to 2pm at the branch office, 12 Buccluech Street.

Out-of-office notices

The committee suggests that members may wish to set up an automatic email reply, on the days of the strike, saying “I will not reply to email until May 27, as I am on strike”, “Email messages will not be replied to until May 27, because of the industrial action called by UCU”, or something similar.