Since my last post on the strike, where I set out my reasons for not joining it, a lot has happened. The strike has forced UUK back to the negotiating table, overseen by ACAS, on a deal originally presented as done. The consultation period on the new arrangements has been postponed. University Vice Chancellors are scurrying to distance themselves from the UUK negotiating position and side with their own striking lecturers. As most observers admit, including most recently the Head of Public Sector Pensions at KPMG in the tweet below, the UCU have won the communications battle. Victory appears to be total.

However there remains a problem, which we seem to be facing increasingly in recent years from Trump to Brexit, and that is this: what to do when the victory you have won is based on campaign arguments which are fundamentally untrue, not backed by evidence or existing pensions legislation, and ultimately undeliverable? Just keep saying no to any workable option which is put to you?

How untrue? Well let’s go back to the now famous letter to the FT signed by many famous lecturers across the UK, including David Spiegelhalter, Ben Goldacre and Steven Haberman (notable as he is deputy director of the Actuarial Research Centre). This was itself a response to a FT story based on the audited accounts, where the pension deficits were merely being updated in line with what had previously been agreed and bore no relation to the negotiations about the March 2017 valuation. As the audited accounts state quite clearly:

The trustee regularly monitors the scheme’s funding position as part of the overall monitoring of FMP introduced followed the 2014 valuation. The monitoring is based on the assumptions used for the 2014 actuarial valuation (updated for changes in gilt yields and inflation expectations). The monitoring does not involve the same detailed review of the underlying assumptions (including the financial, economic, sectoral assumptions for example) that takes place as part of the full actuarial valuation, the next full actuarial valuation being due as at 31 March 2017. Therefore the amounts shown for liabilities in the funding position below are not indicative of the results of the 2017 valuation.

So arguing about these assumptions was futile. The letter also showed an unexpected lack of understanding (particularly from Steven Haberman, who must have spent enough time in the company of pensions actuaries who carry out these kinds of negotiations all the time to know better) about what the assumptions shown in the accounts meant. In particular, there is a note saying that the general salary assumption is only being used for the recovery plan contributions rather than to calculate the scheme deficit. That means that, if you think the assumption is too large, it will be overstating the value of future contributions and therefore understating how large those contributions need to be. So rather than making the scheme seem more unaffordable, it would be making it seem less.

Then there is the mortality point – a massive misunderstanding. The assumptions do not say that life expectancy is increasing by 1.5% pa which would clearly be absurd. They are saying that mortality improvements (ie the percentage by which the expected probability of death of a 70 year old in 2020 is less than that of a 70 year old in 2019) are assumed to be 1.5% pa. Stuart McDonald gently put Ben Goldacre right on this point here.

However the bigger overall point is that individual assumptions are not the thing to focus on here anyway, but the overall level of prudence or otherwise in a basis. And the facts around this are considerably clearer.

  • We know that the initial valuation proposed by the USS Trustee to the Pensions Regulator and the covenant assessment on which it was based (ie the willingness and ability of the employers in UUK to continue paying contributions) were both rejected. As this initial valuation disclosed a deficit of just over £5 billion, then the proposal resulting in a £7.5 billion deficit which was finally presented to the Joint Negotiating Committee would appear to be as low as the Trustee could reasonably go and still get the valuation past the Regulator.
  • The S179 valuation of the scheme (this is the valuation all occupational pension schemes who pay levies to the Pension Protection Fund as insurance against the failure of their employer(s), which is done on the same valuation basis for all schemes) at the last valuation as at 31 March 2014 showed a deficit of £8.95 billion (compared to the £5.3 billion funding deficit disclosed). The latest “more prudent” valuation proposed is therefore still unlikely to be proposing a target which goes anywhere near 100% funding on this basis (the scheme was only 82% funded in March 2014 when, as you can see below, nearly 40% of schemes were in surplus on this measure). There is therefore no justification for the repeated assertion by the UCU that the scheme is not under-funded.

Source: Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee report on defined benefit pension schemes 20 December 2016

One last point on the campaign. Some of it seems to have been directed personally at the USS Trustee. This is the body with no other job than to protect the security of the pensions that lecturers have already built up. Why would anyone want to turn on them? Bill Galvin, the Group CEO at USS Ltd, the Trustee company, has set out responses to some of the other misconceptions here. I would urge anyone with an interest in this dispute to read them.

So, if the deficit is what it is and there is no scope for weakening the funding assumptions any further and maintaining current benefits on these funding assumptions involves contribution increases which are unacceptable to both scheme members and the employers, what is this dispute about now? The time has come for lecturers to decide what they want. Of course the basic premises of pension scheme funding can be argued about (and I direct anyone interested in the long history of actuarial debate in this area to read chapter 6 of Craig Turnbull’s A History of British Actuarial Thought which traces this from 1875 to 1997), and perhaps ultimately legislative change might be brought about if a new argument could be won in this area. But that is a long term objective and the funding of this scheme needs to be agreed now. If a £42,000 cap for 3 years while negotiations continue on a long term structure of the scheme which doesn’t leave all risk with scheme members is not acceptable, then we need to decide pretty quickly what is. Because once we move to a DC arrangement, the chances of us moving back to any form of risk sharing subsequently are in my view remote. There will always be other uses for that money.

However there are many possible alternative structures and many ways of sharing the risks between employers and scheme members. In particular let’s not get too obsessed with Collective Defined Contribution schemes, the enabling legislation for which has yet to materialise. Consider all the alternatives and let proper negotiations commence!


While the NHS has been asked to find £22 billion in savings by 2020, the latest figures from the Student Loans Company show that over £13 billion has been found to fund student loans for 2016/17 alone, without increasing the Government’s deficit and without appearing in the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement until some time in the 2040s. How is this possible?

The key difference is that the money the Government provides in student loans are seen as just that: loans. However, unlike any other kind of loan (and the reason that commercial banks declined to join the SLC – which was the original plan and the reason it was set up with a company structure), only between 40 and 45% is expected ever to be repaid, the repayment term is limited to a maximum of 30 years and the payments limited to a percentage of earnings above a minimum earnings threshold (which is about to increase to £25,000 pa). It is in reality a graduate tax masquerading as a loan, with the “sticker price” of £9,250 pa (which is of course a real price for overseas students) just used to ensure students don’t feel like they are paying this tax on someone else’s behalf. However the payments made by the Government since 2011 as “loans” have not led to any outcry about uncosted commitments, or passing the bill onto future generations which you might expect. Which is surprising, as it has meant that Higher Education has effectively been allowed to sidestep the austerity policies applied to just about every other Government department completely.

One might think that the architect of such a scheme would be quite popular within the Higher Education space. Far from it. Since the announcement of his appointment as the new Chancellor at the University of Leicester, the Leicester branch of the UCU has widened the campaign it is already running against the Joint Negotiating Council’s decision to close the USS pension scheme to further defined benefit accrual to embrace a #WillettsOut position. The students who occupied the corridor outside the Leicester VC’s office for two days similarly had Willetts’ removal on their list.

Apart from elements of his voting record (he was strongly in favour of an elected House of Lords and was strongly against the ban on fox-hunting. TheyWorkForYou additionally records that, amongst other things, he was strongly in favour of the Iraq War, strongly in favour of an investigation into it, moderately against equal gay rights, and very strongly for replacing Trident), the main charges against him seemed to date from an article about him in the Guardian from 2011.

Now without minimising the differences of opinion which I and many of my colleagues will clearly have with David Willetts on a wide range of issues, I do think we are in danger of surrounding ourselves with the comfortable cushions of like-minded individuals all equally in the dark about the regulatory changes in store for us and at risk of all the worst consequences of Group Think. I would therefore like to put forward an alternative view.

The University of Leicester is facing, along with the rest of the Higher Education sector, serious challenges over the coming decades in response to an expansion of the proportion of young people going to university which no political party is going to want to reverse (and which I, for one, would not want them to). David Willetts was the chief driver of much of these reforms and has a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve, set out in his book A University Education. He is currently a visiting professor at King’s College London where he works with the Policy Institute at King’s, a visiting professor at the Cass Business School, Chair of the British Science Association, a member of the Council of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and an Honorary Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. However his real passion is around social mobility, something which I believe is important to many of us here at Leicester, and which has led him to a role as Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation. As a former cabinet minister and shadow cabinet minister from 1996 until 2014, Willetts is very well connected, a formidable debater and would make a fierce friend of the University, fighting Leicester’s corner in what is likely to be an increasingly challenging period.

David Willetts would undoubtedly bring significant challenge with him. Arguing with him (I watched him in debate with Stefan Collini and a variably outraged university audience at the Senate House last year) can sometimes feel like doing battle with a hammer. But it may be that this is what we need to respond successfully to the new world which is coming rather than yet another comfortable cushion to make us feel better. Let’s welcome him inside the tent.