Inside Track | USS – a sense of community can help unlock a solution

Vice-Chancellor Simone Buitendijk explains why something must change with the USS pension and encourages colleagues eligible for the scheme to share their views on it through a survey open until 7 May

University of Leeds Vice-Chancellor Simone Buitendijk poses in front of one of the buildings on campus. August 2020.

Pensions matter. They matter because we all want and deserve security later in life. They matter because they are a key reward for the work we all do. And they matter because a decent income in retirement helps drive down inequalities.

For evidence that they matter a great deal to a great many people, you need look no further than events surrounding the USS pension – of which many of our colleagues are members.

It is very clear that the current situation isn’t sustainable. We can, of course, debate whether that is because of inherent problems with the design of the scheme itself, or because of differing views on the extent or existence of the deficit it faces, or because of the actions of those running or regulating it. But the fact that we have been through two significant periods of industrial action over the last few years and that the scheme is a constant source of debate, strife and review speaks volumes. Something has to change.

While I am still relatively new to Leeds, I am well aware of the unhappy history of this issue through my previous post at Imperial College. And through town hall meetings I have been holding throughout our university – so far covering 23 schools as well as two university-wide ‘Leeds Conversations’ sessions – I have heard first-hand the concerns of many in our community who, not unreasonably, just want to know that they can contribute to and benefit from a scheme that is fair, affordable and stable, and that works for them.

And I have also seen that this issue can be a source of division for very many colleagues. As such, it has the potential to undermine collective trust and the sense of community that that has been so evident to me since I arrived, and that is at the heart of our new 10 year strategy. I am determined to work with everyone to do everything I can to stop this happening.

And by ‘everyone’ I include our local UCU branch, who are also desperate to avoid another period of industrial action, with all the collateral damage it brings to relationships throughout the University, not to mention the impact on our students, who have endured a very trying past 14 months. I know this because Mark Taylor-Batty, our branch’s pensions spokesperson has joined me on a number of platforms and has spoken passionately and eloquently on this issue. I am so pleased that he has been willing to collaborate in this way; it gives me great hope for the future.

So, I believe there is a route out of this predicament if we harness that community spirit embedded so deeply at Leeds to create a shared sense of endeavour to resolve this issue, first locally and then nationally. And to this end, I hope that we at Leeds can act as an example for other university communities in the same situation.

I am confident that this is within our grasp because all parties start from a common position: we want to serve the best interests of our colleagues and make sure they can enjoy a secure retirement. If there has been a difference of view, it’s about the best way to achieve this.

From what I have heard on my ‘tour’, I am also convinced that we all want this to be a benefit that everyone can gain from, regardless of where they are in their career, or their personal circumstances. This last point is key because, as things stand, some younger and/or early career colleagues risk being shut out of the scheme due to the current high contribution rates that are projected to get even higher.

This inequality, which compounds many others already disproportionately felt by young people – see anything from rising house prices to the economic impact of COVID – cannot be consistent with our values as a caring, empathetic and inclusive community.

So whatever solution we come to, we owe it to our colleagues who are in the earlier stages of their careers, and also our students, some of whom are potential future members, not to create financial problems for them later in life, and to ensure the scheme is affordable and flexible enough to allow them to participate.

To help find a solution that works for everybody, Universities UK (UUK) is consulting employers (whom they represent) on future options for the shape of the scheme, including the contributions that both employers and members are willing and able to pay. You can find more detail through our dedicated For Staff USS In Depth web page, which includes further links to UUK and other sources of information for more detailed reading.

But in summary, the USS Trustee (which manages the scheme on our behalf) has recently told us that contributions will need to rise significantly to maintain current benefits (members currently contribute 9.6% of their pay, and the University pays 21.1%). It is likely that contributions will need to rise by a minimum of 11% in aggregate to retain current benefits for the future. It is important to note that any benefits that members already have in the scheme to the date of any further change, are safe and secure.  

As one of the 340 employers in the scheme, we will submit a consultation response to UUK. We want it to be informed by colleagues who are scheme members or eligible to be members, and we are seeking your views on aspects of the scheme via a survey. If this applies to you, you’ll be receiving information on email setting out how you can contribute.

There will be a further opportunity for consultation later in the process, but I would encourage everyone that is eligible to participate in this survey, as the employer responses will inform the position that UUK takes into negotiations with the UCU (which represents employees) to try to formulate a position that will then be considered by the USS Trustee, and ultimately the Pensions Regulator.

As this is a nationally agreed scheme to which all participating institutions are bound, this is the arena in which the future shape of the scheme will be decided. I have often heard it said that individual universities can’t unilaterally resolve this issue. That’s right. But what we can do is act at an exemplar to others for how we can pull together in a spirit of collaboration to help our representatives on the national stage find a solution.

I believe at Leeds we are ideally placed to do that. We have great foundations to build on. That effort continues from today, with your participation in this survey. Thank you in advance for sharing your views.

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