Oxford and Cambridge universities collaborated on their responses to a 2017 Universities UK (UUK) survey as a way of safeguarding their own financial interests, leaked documents suggest.
The UUK survey of employers was to ascertain universities’ positions regarding changes to the academics’ pension scheme, the Universities’ Superannuation Scheme (USS).
Leaked minutes, reported by Cambridge student newspaper Varsity, revealed that Cambridge’s Finance Committee requested that the university’s Pensions Working Group “formulate a robust response acting as far as possible with Cambridge Colleges and the University of Oxford to ensure consistency to give weight to the responses”.
Such collusions were found to be typical in Oxbridge responses to USS consultations. Minutes from 2014 show that Cambridge senior officials “discussed their responses” to the 2014 USS valuation “with their opposite numbers at the University of Oxford so that these could be co-ordinated.”
Cambridge officials also met with counterparts at LSE and Edinburgh at the time, while those from Oxford also met with the University of Manchester and Imperial College.
In their responses to the September 2017 consultation, both universities suggested that USS take “less risk” in its investments. The USS currently has a ‘last-man-standing scheme’ whereby institutions take on responsibility not only for the pension deficit on behalf of their own staff, but of the entire sector, leaving wealthier institutions liable to compensate when other universities fail to deliver their share.
Oxford’s response to the UUK September survey read “the level of risk being proposed is not appropriate for all institutions and allowing weaker institutions to rely on the strength of other employers”. A meeting between Oxford and Cambridge in 2017 also described Cambridge’s “growing realisation and frustration” that “financially weaker Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) were relying on the balance sheets of stronger HEIs.”
Only 26% of other HEIs registered opposition to the last-man-standing arrangement in contrast to 73% of Oxbridge institutions.
Varsity suggested that Cambridge’s criticism of the current USS system could be used as an incentive to pull out of the scheme altogether, which they described as “a betrayal of the higher education sector.” However, the £2.5bn cost of the withdrawal made such a step currently “unfeasible”.
Such co-ordination of responses also extended to colleges. A leaked email from the chair of the pensions sub-committee, Simon Summers, showed that a “suggested response” to colleges had been disseminated.
As previously reported by Cherwell, such collusion between the central University and colleges had also occurred in Oxford. Hertford and Pembroke were colleges that initially followed the university line in the call for “less risk”. The latter’s response to the survey had immediately noticeable similarities to that of the University.
Alongside seeking to make survey responses uniform, central senior officials also did not consult individual colleges and academics properly on their views. Seven out of the eight colleges that came forward to support the “less risk” line in Cambridge had their responses submitted by bursars without seeking the advice of their respective governing bodies.
Oxford University did not reply to Cherwell’s request for comment.