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Academics call for government inquiry into USS governance

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More than 1,000 UK-based academics have demanded that the government launch an inquiry into governance arrangements at the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

In an open letter published in the Financial Times today, signed by 1,012 academic staff from 68 universities, the signatories claimed the behaviour of USS’ trustee board and executive regarding its 2017 valuation had “brought the scheme into disrepute”.

The valuation led to a decision to close the defined benefit (DB) section, prompting nationwide strikes and resulting in an as yet unresolved stand off between the University and College Union (UCU) and the employers’ representative body, Universities UK (UUK).

In the letter, the academics raised “issues of concern over the governance” of USS, which at more than £64bn (€72bn) is the UK’s largest funded DB scheme.

They referred to concerns raised in 2017 by Jane Hutton, a professor of statistics at Warwick University and member of USS’ trustee board. According to a report earlier this month in the Financial Times, Hutton claimed she was frustrated in her attempts to analyse and address concerns over the 2017 valuation, and has raised a whistle-blower complaint with the Pensions Regulator (TPR).

“The trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in the interests of scheme members,” the letter stated. “A board member, with expertise in statistics, raised serious concerns about the quality of the evidence and analysis being presented to the board.

“How were these concerns addressed and investigated by the board of trustees? Did the rest of the trustees investigate these claims adequately and act in the interests of scheme members?

“If the trustees or the USS executive are unable to act in the interests of scheme members, then they should resign. If the employer- and union-appointed trustees are failing to act in the interests of scheme members, then it is the responsibility of UUK and of the UCU to replace the trustees.”

The academics said an inquiry was “urgently needed” in order to assess the pension fund’s statements and conduct regarding the valuation, as well as that of the trustees and TPR. 

“It would be appropriate for a select committee of parliament to investigate,” the letter stated.

The Work and Pensions Committee, a cross-party group of MPs from the UK parliament’s lower house, have previously taken an interest in USS. Frank Field, the committee’s chair, wrote to USS chief executive Bill Galvin in 2017 demanding answers regarding the scheme’s reported £12.6bn deficit.

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