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Academics and students from Cambridge University’s biggest college are protesting at the college’s decision to pull out of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

Trinity College’s council earlier this month voted to pull out of the £64.5bn (€72.8bn) multi-employer scheme, according to documents leaked to the university’s student newspaper, Varsity. The move would reportedly cost the college £30m.

The decision was prompted by the college council’s concern that it would be forced to pick up the bill for other USS employers if a significant number of higher education establishments went bankrupt or exited the scheme. Opponents to Trinity’s exit have described the likelihood of such a scenario as “vanishingly small”.

The Varsity reports have prompted backlash from students and staff, with open letters to the college gathering hundreds of signatures.

Jo Grady, the new general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), wrote to teaching staff at Trinity College on Wednesday to call for their support in opposing the college’s withdrawal from the scheme.

Grady argued that Trinity would “not benefit from the decision to exit” adding that there was “no plausible scenario in which USS will need to call on Trinity’s assets”. She described the £30m exit payment as “a waste”.

Trinity College, Cambridge

Source: Rafa Esteve

Trinity College, Cambridge

She added: “The reports commissioned by the council so far are incoherent, inadequate, and often inaccurate. They have not explained or weighed up the risks that actually face the college and [USS]. You [teaching staff] have not been given the kind of expert advice you need if you are to evaluate the council’s plans properly.”

In an open letter signed by 278 academics from Trinity College and other universities, signatories condemned the exit plan.

“The threat of withdrawal from the scheme… seems motivated by a refusal to accept the basic principle of a mutual scheme across higher educational institutions, and to conceive of Trinity’s interests in the narrow terms of its own balance sheet rather than in terms of the wider ecology of education and research in the UK,” the letter stated.

It also stated that, if Trinity proceeded to exit USS, staff would “refuse to supervise Trinity students or to engage in other discretionary work in support of Trinity’s teaching and research activities”.

In a separate open letter, students supported the staff’s demands and called for the college to “consider its obligations not just to their students… but to their colleagues and the wider community of academia”.

According to Trinity College’s latest accounts, covering the 12 months to 30 June 2018, the college paid £512,000 in contributions to USS for the period. It also included an estimate of £661,000 as “pension provisions” to cover its payments to USS as part of an agreed recovery plan.

Trinity College has been approached for comment.

Pressure mounts on USS

The development follows months of heated disputes between USS, the UCU and employer organisation Universities UK (UUK) over the valuation of the scheme, increases to contributions, and a planned closure of the defined benefit section.

Thousands of academic staff went on strike last year to oppose the closure of the scheme, prompting the establishment of a joint expert panel to scrutinise the valuation and come up with alternative options.

The panel concluded that USS could take more risk to lower the level of employer and employee contributions required, arguing that “USS is a large, open, immature scheme which is cashflow positive and can adopt a very long-term time horizon”.

At a UCU conference on 26 May, members of the union called on the pension scheme to adopt all the panel’s recommendations. They also called for the resignation of USS chief executive Bill Galvin and urged another “national day of action on USS”.

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