Oxford’s and Cambridge’s role in the demise of USS

We recommend Mike Otsuka’s recent article on USS.

To be more precise: what follows is an account of the role of these two universities, and their constituent colleges, in the demise of USS as a multi-employer scheme that promises a decent, defined benefit (DB) pension to its members. In the past, this promise has been generous and affordable, owing to the risk pooling across 68 well-established UK universities that the last-man-standing mutuality of the scheme makes possible. It is clear, however, that Oxford and Cambridge now want out of such a DB scheme.

Read more


Principal’s Pay Hits the Headlines

As UCU members prepare to take strike action to defend our pensions, the large salary and benefits package being awarded to incoming Principal and Vice Chancellor, Peter Mathieson, has hit the headlines of a number of newspapers.

Neil Hanna Photographywww.neilhannaphotography.co.uk
07702 246823

Incoming Principal, Peter Mathieson (image courtesy of The Student)

James Delaney in The Scotsman on 1st Febrary reported:

Edinburgh University principal to get 33% pay hike

Professor Peter Mathieson will take home over £85,000 more than his predecessor as part of a whopping £410,000 welcome package, with benefits including a ‘grace-and-favour’ five-bedroom house in the centre of the capital.

In addition to a basic salary of £342,000 – up from the £257,000 paid to Timothy O’Shea, who stepped down in September – Mr Mathieson will receive £42,000 “in lieu of pension contributions,” as well as a further £26,000 in relocation costs.

The announcement comes less than three weeks before staff at over 60 UK universities, including Edinburgh, prepare for industrial action in a row over pensions.

In The Times, Daniel Sanderson reported on the same day

The new principal of the University of Edinburgh has become the highest-paid figure in Scottish higher education after agreeing a salary package worth almost £400,000 a year.

Peter Mathieson, who begins work this week after moving from Hong Kong University, will be paid a basic salary of £342,000, £85,000 more than his predecessor. He will also receive about £42,000 in lieu of pension contributions, the university will cover one-off relocation costs of £26,000 and he will live in a five-bedroom grace-and-favour home in central Edinburgh.

He has defended the package offered by the university’s remuneration committee. Professor Mathieson also outlined plans to improve the student experience by making greater use of technology and signalled his determination to widen access to more students from poorer backgrounds.

Mary Senior, Scotland official for the University and College Union, said: “It is galling for ordinary staff to see the spiralling pay and perks of university principals when university leaders say there is no money for staff pay and pensions. People feel betrayed.”

In a follow-up article the following day, Sanderson looked at this in a broader context.

University principals have been accused of “feathering their own nests” by opting out of pension schemes and instead negotiating large top-ups to their salaries.

About a third of principals at Scottish universities have stopped paying into the higher education pension scheme. Rather than foregoing contributions from their employer, however, they are receiving tens of thousands of pounds extra in their pay packets.

Staff representatives said the practice was unfair as workers on low or average salaries had no entitlement to top-up payments if they chose to leave the pension scheme. The issue is particularly sensitive as university staff are preparing to strike over efforts to impose less generous pension terms.

Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde University, received £54,000 in lieu of pension contributions last year, in addition to his £299,000 salary, according to annual accounts.

Peter Mathieson, of Edinburgh University, this week became the highest paid vice-chancellor in Scotland after accepting an annual package worth almost £400,000, which includes £42,000 instead of pension contributions.

Paying into the university scheme can prove inefficient from a tax perspective if pension pots hit a £1 million limit. Although staff can continue to pay into the scheme, contributions above £1 million are taxed, so some high earners request a salary top-up instead.

Mary Senior, Scotland official for the University and College Union, said that principals should accept the same pension arrangements as their staff, and that refusing to do so was “poor leadership”. She said the situation showed there was “one rule for a few at the top and one for everybody else”.

The union has announced a wave of strike action, starting this month, over efforts to change the pension scheme that would mean staff no longer have a guaranteed level of retirement income.

Ms Senior added: “Staff in universities do not have the option of requesting extra money to best suit their private pension or tax arrangements. Principals feathering their own nests while backing changes to slash staff pensions is one of the reasons staff are so angry.”

Principals at Queen Margaret, Glasgow Caledonian, Edinburgh Napier and Dundee universities also receive salary top-ups instead of pension contributions. The option is open to all high earners at universities who hit the £1 million limit. Pay of senior figures in education is under fresh scrutiny since Professor Mathieson’s salary was agreed on. His basic salary of £342,000 is £85,000 higher than his predecessor.

The university has defended the contract by pointing to Edinburgh’s annual income of almost £1 billion and saying it represents a pay cut for Professor Mathieson, compared with his previous role at the University of Hong Kong.

Luke Humberstone, the president of NUS Scotland, said: “At a time when the poorest higher education students are taking on the greatest debt just to get by, it beggars belief that any university principal would be handed this supersize salary. Our universities are educational charities which receive over a billion pounds of public money.”

A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said pay was decided by university remuneration committees. She added: “This would include the decision to offer an alternative to pension contributions, if and when this no longer becomes an effective way for someone to save for retirement. Staff and student voices can be heard in remuneration committees and will be consulted with.”

Principal top-ups Scottish university principals’ salary top-ups in lieu of pension contributions Jim McDonald £54,000 Strathclyde University Peter Mathieson £42,000 University of Edinburgh Pamela Gillies £36,000 Glasgow Caledonian Pete Downes £32,000 University of Dundee Andrea Nolan £30,000 Edinburgh Napier Petra Wend £8,000* Queen Margaret University *opted out of scheme mid-way through year

Meanwhile, The Student conducted an interview with Mathieson, where he defended his award.

On principle couldn’t you have said no to the salary?

I could’ve done I guess, but I was already taking a substantial pay cut.

The article also revealed that:

There are 21 members of Edinburgh university staff are earning over £200,000 a year while a survey conducted by The Student found that one in seven of your postgraduate tutors earn less than £500 a month.

It would seem that the issue is not one of available funds but of priorities.

Strike – Local News


Strike dates

Week one – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)
(Note that we’re not striking during the week beginning February 19th because it’s the Festival of Creative Learning, and a reading week in some colleges.)

Week two – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)

Week three – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)

Week four – Monday 19 and Tuesday 20 March (two days)

We realise that this will be a difficult time for both staff and students. UCU national HQ are currently discussing the use of the union’s hardship fund, taking into specific consideration the conditions of casualised staff.

Further Information to Follow

We will send out more information shortly, and UCU UK will be releasing FAQ and information for students. It is important to note that we have widespread support from students, from NUS on a national level and EUSA on a local level.

Strike Committee

The branch have set up a strike committee – please email ucu@ed.ac.uk if you would like to join this planning group. You can also help in the run-up to industrial action by talking to your colleagues about the issues, and if they are eligible (professional services staff from Grade 6 upwards, academic staff, and postgraduates) encourage them to join UCU and take part in the fight to protect all our pension rights.

National updates

For updates, keep an eye on: https://www.ucu.org.uk/strikeforuss

Strike – message from Sally Hunt

Members should have received the following useful email from Sally, answering a number of recurring questions about the upcoming strike.

I wanted to share the four questions I am asked most about the upcoming strikes.

1. What should I tell my students?

UCU has produced a video for members to share with students. If you do not want to write your own message you could write something like:

Dear student,
UCU is taking strike action later this month due to proposed cuts in our pensions. This is a last resort for myself and my colleagues but with universities refusing to negotiate with us we feel we have little choice. This video explains the issues behind the strike.

If you prefer you could download a letter to share with students.

2. Do I have to tell management that I intend to strike?

No. UCU provides all the information to your employer that is legally required. If you let your employer know in advance that you are taking action they will be able to minimise the disruption caused. If asked you should respond: my union has advised me that I am not required to let you know my intentions prior to the start of any industrial action.

3. Will the union financially support staff taking action?

UCU is very aware that strikes place a big financial burden on all members. That is why they are a last resort. However we will be providing strike pay in order to ease that burden as much as we can and we will look to prioritise help for those most in need. We will announce details of strike pay tomorrow once our elected officers have discussed the matter.

4. How can we get negotiations back on track?

Having spoken to many employers this past week I have no doubt that they are split. Glasgow yesterday became the latest institution to call for ‘further discussions at national level’. Meanwhile the NUS has called for the involvement of ACAS to resolve the dispute. I am happy to agree to both pleas, but the employers currently are not.

Without substantial disruption from the strikes, I think the hardliners will continue to hold sway. We are doing everything we can to persuade the employers to resume talks but it will be your action that is key to what happens next in my view.

I will issue a longer FAQ document which answers more of your questions over the next couple of working days so please send me any queries you want addressed.

Thank you once again for your support.

Sally Hunt
UCU general secretary

Strike Action Dates

Extracted from UCU national press release.  Local information to follow.

UCU Scotland announces 14 strike dates at nine Scottish universities in pensions row

  • 14 days of escalating strikes over four week period begins with five-day walkout around weekend

Fourteen days of strikes at nine Scottish universities* will begin on Thursday 22 February the University and College Union (UCU) Scotland announced today (Monday).

The union has written to the universities to inform them of an escalating wave of strikes over a four week period that will begin with a five-day walkout either side of a weekend. There will then be four days of strikes from Monday 5 – Thursday 8 March and a full five-day walkout the following week (12 – 16 March). The strike dates are:

Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)

Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)

Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)

Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)

Due to academic timetabling two universities, Edinburgh and Stirling, will not take action in week one and will instead walkout on Monday 19 and Tuesday 20 March.  They will participate in all the other strike dates.

Last week talks between UCU and the employers’ representative Universities UK (UUK) ended without agreement and UUK’s plans to transform the scheme were forced through by the chair’s casting vote.

The dispute is part of UK wide action and centres on UUK’s proposals to end the defined benefit element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme. UCU says this would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than under the current set-up.

In the recent strike ballot UCU members overwhelmingly backed industrial action. Overall, 87% of members in Scotland who voted backed strike action and 93% backed action short of a strike. The turnout in Scotland was 63% and 58% across the UK.  A full breakdown of the results by institution is available here.

UCU General Secretary, Sally Hunt, said:

Staff who have delivered the international excellence principals use to justify their own lavish pay and perks are understandably angry at efforts to slash their pensions. They feel let down by leaders who seem to care more about defending their own perks than the rights of their staff.

Strike action on this scale has not been seen before on Scottish or UK campuses, but universities need to know the full scale of the disruption they will be hit with if they refuse to sort this mess out.

* Universities affected by strike action

Aberdeen, The University of
Dundee, The University of
Edinburgh, University of
Glasgow, The University of
Heriot-Watt University
St Andrews, University of
Stirling, The University of
Strathclyde, University of
Scottish Association for Marine Science at University of the Highlands and Islands


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)


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.

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?