Figure 1: Timeline of UUK underestimates of cuts to pensions, all links here.
In a response to Sussex UCU members concerns, Universities UK (UUK) continued its sham defence of their year of misleading claims on the scale of the USS pension cuts.
UUK’s woefully inadequate response, dated 7 July 2022 - copied here in full (with our comments) - aimed to address the mismatch between their claims and the results of the global analysis of the cuts to pensions but instead demonstrated a complete disregard for accountability measures and for the global reputation of the UK university sector.
In short, UUK’s support of their claim of 10-18% cuts for total pensions is contradicted by the USS modeller results, includes no assumptions, evidence or analysis and simply repeats a press-release from November 2021 that itself makes little sense.
UUK’s continuing defence of the bogus claims now calls into serious doubt their standards of governance.
UUK governance standards
The overall purpose of UUK is described in its Articles of Association, which includes
protecting the interest, reputation or good standing of the universities or the university sector of higher education in the United Kingdom
UUK maintains the website USS Employers which is
owned and managed by Universities UK, the nominated formal representative for over 340 employers in the Universities Superannuation Scheme.
UUK's own governance is important in this context because UUK is the body responsible for consulting on changes to the £90bn pension scheme and because UUK is also now consulting on a USS governance review.
Yet UUK itself publishes almost no information about their own governance. Their Annual Report 2021 refers to a review held in 2018, but neither the review nor the recommendations are available. There is no reference to any independent or external input into their governance reviews and no public mechanism for stakeholder consultation.
The UUK Strategic Plan 2018-2023 refers to their
collective responsibility for adhering to shared standards of governance
Moreover, UUK’s approach to their own governance is in stark contrast to that of universities. Universities commit to the HE Code of Governance. This code requires ‘full and robust’ triennial reviews of governance with independent input. These reviews of university governance invite staff and student input. The results may not receive universal support, but the standard practice is for the review and recommendations to be shared in full at Higher Education Institutions. The standards set by this HE Code of Governance include transparency, accountability, integrity, public service, and excellence.
Why does UUK not adhere to the claim, in their own Strategic Plan of ‘shared standards of governance’ and comply with the HE Code of Governance that universities adopt? Is it because these standards are too high?
The UUK Strategic Plan: trust, confidence, and robust evidence?
The UUK Strategic Plan also refers to five priorities. Priority 3 is ‘trust’ and in particular public trust, evidence and collective responsibility. UUK states that their campaigns
…will be supported by robust evidence which will form the basis of powerful and accessible messaging to challenge attitudes, influence decisions and win arguments.
The UUK messaging on USS pensions is categorically not supported by anything resembling 'robust evidence’. The same document claims that UUK
… will review our governance structures …to ensure they have the trust and confidence of the membership…
Do Vice-Chancellors, and wider university leadership teams, really have trust and confidence in the statements UUK makes on USS pensions?
If they do, why do so many of the joint statements issued by universities and their local UCU branches call for 'evidence-based' communications? For example, the University of Leeds joint statement calls for an ‘evidence based approach to communications that includes rapidly and publicly correcting any emerging errors of fact.’
Is UUK even fit to consult on USS governance?
It is clear to anyone following the pensions dispute that the UUK’s statements on USS systematically under-represented the extent of the cuts while over-representing the cost of maintaining benefits. While UUK’s approach to covenant support and consultations favoured UUK’s own proposals while actively undermining UCU’s proposals.
The principal losers in this sorry affair are younger, lower paid staff at universities who have suffered £100,000s cut from their pensions through a biased and unjust valuation and consultation process that opportunistically took advantage of an anomalous market slump during a pandemic.
The wider consequences include serious and lasting damage to the reputation of UK universities, the evaporation of goodwill among staff, and ultimately, of course, the deleterious impact on the students who study and work at our institutions.
We ask: can UUK really be trusted to lead on a governance review of the £90bn USS pensions scheme, when it has shown itself to be so untrustworthy, and has lost the confidence of most academic and academic-related employees?
To win back trust UUK first needs to address the widespread concerns of the sector regarding its recent misrepresentations about pensions. Then it needs to publicly demonstrate that its own governance is in order. That means abiding by the same standards expected for the university sector.
Vice-Chancellors make up the membership of UUK and this means UUK is directly accountable to the VCs who lead our institutions. So, what will it take to get VCs to do something about their representative body, which is misleading them along with everyone else?