Students Staff
University of Essex

February 19, 2018

Why universities need to pay more to protect USS pension rights

Our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Anthony Forster,  sets out our own position relating to the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

Is there an alternative to the strike hitting universities?

The overwhelming vote by UCU members for 14 days of strike action in 61 universities indicates the strength of feeling about the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). For many of us it is the most important issue that we have ever had to confront that relates to our pay – and it will have consequences not just for current academic and professional services staff, but future generations as well.

So how have we got to this position?

During last year’s consultation on the future funding of USS, we held an open meeting with our staff to help inform the response the Council of the University of Essex would make to the consultation on the future of the pension scheme. This input from staff led to our University Council adopting three key positions. These remain unchanged and we continue to be an advocate for them.

  • We believe high quality pension arrangements are a significant part of the benefits available to our employees.
  • We feel the USS Trustees are being overly prudent in their assumptions, which will potentially undervalue assets and overestimate potential liabilities.
  • At Essex we are prepared to consider increasing employer contributions to the scheme, alongside increases in employee contributions, in order to sustain critical features of USS, including defined benefits.

Adopting these positions will safeguard key elements of USS and avoid a highly disruptive strike that places staff who are members of UCU in the agonising position of balancing their support for student learning, with their commitment to their trade union and a legitimate desire to be a member of a high quality pension scheme.

To date we have failed to win over most universities to our view, with 109 employers stating in their responses to the UUK survey that they would be unwilling to increase employer contributions beyond the current level of 18% of salary –  with only seven indicating that they were prepared to pay more into USS to safeguard a high quality pension scheme. Sometimes principles cost money.

In addition, a majority of universities support the USS Trustees in introducing additional elements of prudence into their valuation methodology to reduce the risk of employers having to make additional contributions to the scheme to safeguard benefits should circumstances require this at some point in the future.

As a result, we now have proposals on the table which would see no further benefits being accrued in the defined benefit sections of the USS – neither the final salary nor the career revalued sections. Instead, all contributions will go into a defined contribution section termed the USS Investment Builder.

The net impact is a significant reduction in the certainty with which USS members can plan for their retirements. This is bad news for current USS members; as 960 professors have indicated in an open letter to THE [18/01/2018] it will further reduce the attractiveness of the UK as a destination in the global market for talent; and it poses a significant risk to our ability to attract new entrants into the academy.

There is still time to find common ground that will avoid a costly strike that will be painful and disruptive for all sides. UCU members at Essex have told me they are heartbroken to have to take strike action which they now feel is the only option left to them to express their dismay – and our students have told us that the impact of strike action on their learning experience is a source of consternation to them, at an absolutely critical time in the academic year.

We know our staff value the defined benefit component of USS and to retain it we may need to accept this will need to operate at a reduced level, to ensure the scheme is more sustainable and affordable than at present. Likewise university employers must step up to the plate and commit to increasing employer contributions to the scheme, alongside increases in employee contributions, to safeguard what staff tell us is one of the most important elements of the current scheme.

USS is a nationally negotiated scheme and we are bound by the majority view. Whilst the ‘Essex position’ places us in a minority of employers, we will continue to advocate the goal of safeguarding a high quality and sustainable pension scheme for USS members and use our position on the USS Institutions’ Advisory Panel to do so.

The shared interest of all stakeholders should place an obligation on all parties to look to find imaginative and sustainable ways of delivering this goal – principled compromise is the answer.

You can also read this blog on the Times Higher Education website.

February 16, 2018

Our commitment to the planet and its resources

Our Sustainability Sub Strategy sets out our targets for building a greener, cleaner University. Here our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jules Pretty tells us more about the work he’s doing to ensure we continue to live up to our commitment to the planet and its natural resources.

Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jules Pretty.

Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jules Pretty.

At the beginning of 2017, the University’s Council approved our Sustainability Sub-Strategy. Through this we made clear our commitment to acting responsibly and positively with respect to the planet and its natural resources. These are under threat: almost all evidence points towards the insidious effects of climate change. Before the industrial revolution, the atmosphere contained 280 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide: 350 ppm is taken to be a safe place for humanity, today levels have passed 400 ppm and are rising at about 2ppm each year. At this rate, we will see 450 ppm by mid-century.

The UK government signed into law in 2008 the Climate Change Act, still a remarkable piece of legislation. It commits us as a country to 80% reductions by 2050 in carbon emissions from a 1990 baseline. This might just save the planet, if everyone did this. Our role as a University is thus to act responsibly and show leadership: it can be done.

Here is a top ten for our recent actions and outcomes in relation to sustainability:

  1. We are committed to reducing our contribution to carbon in the atmosphere: from 2012-13 to 2016-17, our annual carbon emissions fell from 18,850 tonnes to 14,100 tonnes. Emissions per unit area fell from 0.08 to 0.05 tonnes per square metre, and halved per student, from 1.8 to 0.9 tonnes per person.
  2. When the Innovation Centre is complete, we will have a total of 1700 solar PV panels generating about 430 MWh per year. As a registered power station, we are thus feeding into the National Grid. Solar panels are now installed on the Essex Business School, Health and Social Care and Computer Science and Electronic Engineering buildings, the Albert Sloman Library, the new Essex Sport Arena, the STEM building, the Parkside offices, and the Corbett Theatre in Loughton.
  3. Our energy savings and generation has brought a financial benefit to us: if these had remained at 2012 levels, we would be spending £800k more a year on energy.
  4. There are now 35 Green Impact teams across University Departments, Sections and the Students’ Union. Six were awarded Gold in 2016-17, and in one year the 138 active participants completed 1145 actions.
  5. The Colchester campus was awarded a prestigious Green Flag for the quality of the grounds and natural environment. The judges praised the campus for being “one of the best sites for environmental principles.” We have installed 10 swift nest boxes on the roof of the Albert Sloman Library, with sounder to broadcast song to attract them in, and hope to see swifts flying around the buildings and lake this spring and summer, each harvesting 100,000 insects daily.
  6. All new vehicles owned and used by Estates Management Section will be electric vehicles (except where specialist use prevents use of EVs or hybrids).
  7. We have installed 41 plumbed-in water coolers across the three campuses so as to replace water bottle units, thus reducing our use of plastic and the transport of large bottled water to campuses by vehicle.
  8. We replaced 12 boilers in 16-17, increasing our energy efficiency by 15%, and have replaced roof insulation wherever refurbishment has been undertaken.
  9. Total waste production from the University has fallen 19% from 1450 tonnes in 2012-13 to 1176 tonnes in 2016-17. The No Waste Graduation programme raised £42,000 for the British Heart Foundation. We are also trialling a new furniture re-use online tool, Warp-it.
  10. We have amended the approach to how we invest our financial reserves, extending the existing restrictions on investments in tobacco and armaments also to cover fossil fuel extraction.

Every little helps. Here are four actions each of us could do to help the university become more sustainable:

  • To save carbon: switch off lights and power down computers or other energy hungry equipment whenever you can;
  • To enjoy nature and the outdoors: arrange a walking meeting once a month, or just go for regular walks;
  • To ensure waste is recycled: ensure recyclable waste is put in the right bins;
  • To build a community of practice: join the Green Impact team in your department or section.

And much more, if you feel inclined!

Professor Jules Pretty

Deputy Vice-Chancellor