Six colleges pushed for controversial pension reform

Leaked documents suggest that several colleges shared the University’s position on risk in the scheme

University staff protest outside the Clarendon.

Six Oxford colleges helped justify controversial pension reforms through their responses to a Universities UK (UUK) survey, according to leaked documents seen by Cherwell.

The survey was used to account for changes to the pension fund, citing that 42% of institutions, including the University itself and six of its colleges, wanted the scheme to have “less risk”.

The identities of the six colleges are not yet fully known. Only Hertford and Pembroke have revealed that they pressed for less risk, with pressure mounting on the ten Oxford colleges who have not yet responded to information requests to be transparent.

The previously confidential minutes of an October meeting of the Oxford Estate Bursars’ Committee were leaked to Michael Otsuka, a London School of Economics professor who has spoken out about Oxbridge colleges’ role in pushing for changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

It was already known, from analysis of documents and UUK statements, that around a third of the 42 per cent of institutions cited as wanting “less risk” were Oxbridge colleges – amounting to approximately sixteen colleges.

This was in addition to a response from Oxford University as a whole, though this stance was reversed earlier this month after pressure from academics.

It was assumed that the Oxbridge respondents were dominated by Cambridge colleges, as Hertford and Pembroke were the only Oxford institutions understood to have responded this way. This is in contrast to nine known Cambridge colleges.

However, the leaked minutes reveal that the committee was aware of seven Oxford colleges who submitted responses to the UUK survey, six of which pushed for a move away from a defined benefit (DB) system to the defined contribution (DC) scheme.

The change has provoked widespread industrial action among university staff across the country. Defined benefit schemes offer a minimum guaranteed retirement income, while defined contribution systems depend on returns from stock market investments.

Cherwell has contacted every college for their response to the UUK survey, as well as their current position on the pension dispute.

This is alongside separate information requests made by members of the Oxford UCU branch and Dr Neil Davies, a research fellow at the University of Bristol who sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to each Oxbridge college.

Hertford were the first college to reveal they pressed for “less risk” last year. Since then, the college has reversed this position.

In an official statement, Hertford said this action was made “following a Governing Body review of the USS negotiations process to date, which identified concerns with the manner in which UUK have interpreted survey submissions and the lack of response to requests made for additional data. It considers that these failings undermine the validity and usefulness of the survey’s conclusions.”

This week, Pembroke responded to a FOI request for their response. It was immediately noticed that there were remarkable similarities between the college’s survey and that of Oxford University.

According to the University’s website, Pembroke’s bursar, John Church, was also a member of Oxford’s “USS review working group”.

The college deny there was any “behind closed doors deal”.

A Pembroke spokesperson told Cherwell: “The view that the College arrived at in response to the 2017 UUK survey of employers on USS was in line with that of the University, and our submission reflects this. 

“Pembroke’s statement of 15th March reflects our ongoing concern, as an employer, to see a sustainable and fair solution that ensures that we can continue to fulfil our core purpose, namely education and research, and that supports the long term health of the academic profession.”

Besides Hertford and Pembroke, it is not yet known who the other colleges referred to in the leaked minutes are. However, it is believed they are made up of the colleges who have not yet responded to information requests on their survey responses.

These currently stand as All Souls, Brasenose, Christ Church, Harris Manchester, Keble, Kellogg, Magdalen, St Catherine’s, St Peter’s, and Trinity.

Most colleges have revealed that they did not respond to the survey, and several have expressed their support for the continuation of a defined benefits scheme.

Queen’s College have been the most vocal in their opposition to the reforms. They were the only Oxford college to respond to the survey and not press for less risk.

This week the College released a statement slamming the proposed agreement made between UUK and UCU during arbitration talks, which was later rejected by union branches across including Oxford.  

The college labelled the proposal “problematic”, before describing any agreement made under the constraints of the 2017 valuation of the scheme as “akin to a rearrangement of deck-chairs on the Titanic”.

They concluded that their “overriding concern is simply for the recruitment and retention of academics, given the long-term weakening of remuneration in the higher education sector.

“We remain profoundly worried about the waning attraction of an academic career for those beginning, or yet to begin, their working lives.”

Last week, Council sent an email out to University staff revealing it had reversed a decision to exclude USS members from the membership of the University’s Pensions Working Group.

They said: “In setting up the Committee, Personnel Committee and Council were guided by concerns about conflict of interest and so the Working Group’s membership was skewed away from those who were current members of the USS scheme.

“Council now considers those legitmate concerns are overridden by the need to take full account of the interests of members of the scheme.”

In its response to the survey, Pembroke also expressed concerns about the conflict of interest of having USS members input their opinions into the decision-making process. They concluded to address these issues “by seeking guidance from those members of the Governing Body who have no such conflict of interest.”

Honorary Secretary of Oxford UCU, Peter Hill, told Cherwell: “We are disappointed that it appears University senior management and college bursars worked in concert to skew the outcome of the September survey in favour of de-risking. This led to the proposed changes to USS and thus directly to the industrial action and the disruption it caused.

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“We need far more transparency at the University: University Council and colleges should now make clear what the various Oxford responses to this survey were. Many colleagues at other institutions are rightly outraged at Oxbridge unfairly skewing the results, and then being secretive about their responses.

“The University’s position and that of many colleges have now changed, since Congregation in 8th week and various Governing Body meetings. We hope that Council will ensure that this mandate is upheld and a position in favour of retaining USS and accepting higher risk is maintained.

“We feel more robust and transparent procedures for oversight of the decisions of senior managers (and college bursars) should be put in place, to ensure members of Congregation and colleges are adequately consulted on decisions being taken in their name.”

Oxford University have not responded to a request for comment.

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