Does the decision to close Archaeology make financial sense? Not on UEB’s figures.
In May, the University’s Executive Board (UEB) announced the results of a review they had conducted into the future of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology. The review proposed choosing from one of three options:
- invest in the department with four new posts;
- close the department outright;
- close the department, moving some areas of research strength elsewhere.
The three-option set-up was plain for all to see, and to no great surprise UEB recommended the ‘compromise’ of option 3 to Council: Archaeology would cease to exist as a department, though small amounts of its activities would continue in other departments. As expected, Council backed its executive board and rubber-stamped the decision.
There has been much discussion over the processes that led to this decision (were students treated ethically during the review? why did Senate not provide a clear recommendation to Council?), but the financial aspects of the decision-making are yet to receive much scrutiny. If you assumed the decision to close Archaeology was in the best financial interests of the University, then think again: the numbers tell a different story.
Financial implications of closure
You could be forgiven for thinking the financial case for closure would be clear cut. Archaeology was making a loss as a department, so closing it and retaining its strongest elements would cut the losses and retain the profitable elements, putting the University in a better financial shape over the long-term. Or so the story goes.
The review document contained 5-year financial projections under the different options. It claimed the figures show “immediate cost savings and further saving realised following teach out which could be re‐invested into retained areas of strength and into other academic departments” in option 3 (closure and realignment). Meanwhile, option 1 (investment) “requires a large upfront investment, with limited evidence that the investment will address the challenges faced by the Department”, and warns that “the university will not recoup the investment if a) cross disciplinary programmes are not viable; and/or b) the department is unsuccessful in the development and expansion of the consultancy offer”.
A version of the review document was released as part of a Freedom of Information request (look in ‘FOI Papers.zip’, document 6). While it has some redacted figures, it contains enough information to assess the validity of the claims made. Interestingly, Senate wasn’t trusted with the full figures, and also received the redacted version.
Immediate cost savings?
First, the claim that closing the department generates immediate cost savings. On first glance, one can find in option 3’s figures a row for “cost savings” versus the status quo, which start at £620k per year in Year 2, rising to £1.2m per year in Year 5. But these cost-savings are more than offset by redundancy payouts and a projected loss in income of £1.2m in Year 2, rising to £1.5m in Year 5 (see Figure 1). In other words, there are no “immediate cost savings… which could be reinvested into retained areas of strength and into other academic departments”: quite the opposite. Closure of the department will cost the university hundreds of thousands of pounds per year.
By 2025/26, our analysis of the figures (not refuted by University management in our dispute meetings) shows that choosing option 3 over option 1 has a cumulative detrimental impact of over £1.6m. That is, by recommending closure of the department, UEB expect to be worse off to the tune of around £1.6m in five years’ time. They may have found a way to send the departmental deficit towards zero (after all, a department that doesn’t exist can’t lose you money), but the University as a whole takes the hit. Shared costs will be passed on to other departments. We all lose out.
Figure 1: Sheffield UCU analysis of the financial implications of options 1 and 3, based on UEB figures
(Spreadsheet available here)
Recouping the investment?
Next up, the claim that the University may not be able to recoup the investment inherent in option 1. And again, one can see a row for the planned investment under option 1, starting at £178k in Year 1, rising to £402k in Year 5. In total, this represents a cumulative investment of £1.7m by Year 5.
The first thing to note is that there is no allowance for any improvement in income as a result of this investment, either in terms of improved student recruitment or improved grant or consultancy income (this is put down to “prudence”). But even without any allowance for this, option 1 still beats option 3 to the tune of £1.6m cumulatively over 5 years, as described above. In other words, the £1.7m investment to keep the department open will recoup itself and provide a £1.6m improved financial position over ‘closure and realignment’ over the next five years, representing a 96% return on the investment. In taking option 3, the university is implicitly setting itself a challenge of being able to find an alternative investment that doubles its £1.7m stake. It won’t manage it.
And then we get to the investment outlay itself, which is included under option 1 but not under option 3, despite UEB’s commitment to targeted investment in the areas it proposes to realign. If this unspecified level of investment were to be included in the figures for option 3, the financial benefits of keeping the department open would be even more pronounced.
Were the financial best interests of the University taken into account in the decision-making?
We are yet to see evidence that the financial best interests of the University as a whole were properly taken into account in reaching the decision to close the Department of Archaeology. There is no indication that UEB discussed them in reaching its recommendation (see the minutes of the 25 May meeting), and Senate had the necessary information redacted. We are used to seeing financial arguments as central justification for decision-making, so it seems unusual for them to be kept out of the picture here. It is hard to shake the feeling that the financial best interests were at odds with the recommendation UEB was keen to make, so they were kept out of sight and out of mind.
We are yet to see minutes of the Council meeting where the final decision was made, which will not be publicly released until October. Whether Council properly interrogated the financial implications of the recommendation they received from UEB, time will tell.
UCU Congress 2018: Delegates’ Report
UCU Congress this year did not go smoothly.
There have been many reports published already, including in the press, about what happened at Congress. Some of the substance of it is quite complicated, but in short: Congress was unable to debate motions that were on the agenda due to walkouts by UCU staff. Business was suspended on the first day and again on the last day (the second day is taken up by what are called the sector conferences, one for HE and one for FE, and those went very smoothly). We did not hear the majority of Congress motions that we were there to discuss on the first and third days.
So, what happened? The contentious motions included one that we submitted as a late motion calling for a democracy review (which was passed at one of our local EGMs), a motion of no confidence in the General Secretary (motion 10), and a censure of the General Secretary (motion 11). Unite, which represents UCU employees, produced a leaflet that was handed out to delegates on arrival to Congress arguing that debate on these motions represented ‘an attack on [their] trade union rights’ and the agreement that they have with UCU – on the grounds that these motions were critical of UCU employees – i.e. the General Secretary – without due process.
Our democracy review motion did not originally appear on Congress agenda due to Congress Business Committee ruling that it was ‘not Congress business’. We successfully challenged this decision and, after securing a 2/3rd majority vote from Congress (necessary within the rules to order a late motion back onto the agenda), our motion was admitted back on the agenda for discussion. This is when the first walkout happened.
Congress was suspended while the movers of the relevant motions discussed things with Unite reps. As a result of those discussions, we agreed to amend parts of the democracy review motion (which later passed in this form). Delegates from the other branches involved also spoke to Unite reps. You can read full accounts from Exeter (no confidence in the General Secretary) and KCL (censure of the General Secretary) of their experiences, including the pressure that they were put under to withdraw their motions.
Business was briefly resumed (and some excellent motions were passed) before a second walkout after Congress voted to hear motions 10 and 11. No further motions were passed that day. When we reconvened on Friday after the sector conferences on Thursday, we were again asked to vote on whether or not we should hear motions 10 and 11. Again we voted to hear them, and again UCU employees walked out. Congress was suspended again, and it was then announced by a member of UCU staff (the Chair did not return) that Congress was closed.
We share the view of delegates from Exeter and KCL that motions which were submitted in line with formal procedures and deemed legitimate by the Congress Business Committee, the body that orders the agenda, should have been heard. Delegates from those branches had no mandate from their members to withdraw their motions, and plenty of Congress delegates who did not support the motions did support keeping them on the agenda. The fact that the General Secretary is an employee does not override the fact that she is elected to represent the members of the union and is therefore accountable to them; she has a right of reply in Congress debate. We would have actively welcomed any intervention from her at any point in the process of discussing whether or not the motions should be heard. The General Secretary did not intervene at any point, despite being invited to by one of our delegates.
It is our view that neither motion 10 nor motion 11 would have passed straightforwardly had they been heard at the time they should have been. It is also our view that those members who were unhappy with the General Secretary before Congress are likely to be considerably more unhappy now. We believe that forcing the closure of the sovereign policy-making body of a trade union to prevent debate, discussion and public accountability for elected representatives is a very serious matter. We respect the right of any trade union to act in the best interests of its members, but we also believe that the General Secretary is accountable to the membership, including at Congress. As delegates we were broadly in agreement that we would vote for motion 11, which called for censure, but not for motion 10, which expressed no confidence in the GS and called for her resignation. In the light of the disruption this week, which surely could have been avoided had the GS been willing to face the scrutiny these motions represented, we are now minded to consider the matter in a different light.
This is a necessarily simplified account of what happened at Congress – there are many more details to share about how Congress was chaired, how senior UCU members responded to events, how delegates were prevented from proper discussion during suspension and so on. We would like to discuss these issues at our next meeting, and to update you on the motions that were passed at HE sector conference, many of which will be very significant over the next few months. You can read all of the motions that were passed here, and we strongly recommend that you do.
There were excellent discussions around building our campaign on pay. There was much discussion around USS pensions and the JEP. We submitted a motion on strengthening of the Superannuation Working Group, which was well received and overwhelmingly passed. Our amendment to motions relating to potential industrial action over pay, calling for the co-ordination of industrial action with FE and with other trade unions in other sectors, was welcomed by the delegates. Unfortunately we have to report that due to the disruption of full Congress our motion on local government austerity and our amendment on sexual harassment in education institutions were not discussed.
In her address to Congress, the General Secretary told us that membership of UCU has increased by 16,000 in the last year. She spoke, repeatedly, about how this has been a ‘turnaround’ year for UCU. We strongly agree. The membership is bigger, and more active; it has been transformed by the USS dispute and the FE fightback. Branches up and down the country are doing amazing work. As a branch we will continue to fight for a more democratic, member-led and campaigning union. This Congress should have been a celebration of our achievements, as well as a chance to strategise around the huge challenges we are facing together. Instead it was derailed, and ultimately we believe responsibility for this lies with the General Secretary.
An emergency motion for a recall Congress was passed on the Friday, which means that Congress will resume at some point to discuss the remaining business, including Motion 10 and 11. Our AGM takes place on Thursday and we’d urge you all to come along, whatever your views about the General Secretary. This amounts to a crisis moment for UCU: we need your views about where we go from here.
SUCU Congress delegates 2018
Why We Are Calling For a Democracy Review
On the 16th April 2018 at a well-attended Emergency General Meeting of Sheffield UCU, we overwhelmingly passed the motion below calling for a democracy review of UCU. We then submitted it as a late motion to Congress, UCU’s annual meeting to determine national policy, which is being held this year between 30th May and 1st June. We also shared it with the participants at UCU Transformed, an activists’ day school hosted by London Region UCU on 28th April, which was attended by 150 UCU members from more than 20 branches.
Democracy Review Motion
- concerns from many branches and members about the processes behind the consultative ballot on the USS offer of 23rd March
- the lack of inter-election mechanisms by which to recall or hold elected union representatives to account
- most senior full time officials of the union are appointed rather than elected
- to undertake a review before Congress 2019 of UCU’s democratic structures via a democracy commission, including but not limited to discussion of the appropriate number of full time elected officials and how elected representatives are to be held to account
- that the commission should be elected by and from branches, regional committees, devolved nations and advisory committees of the union
- to empower the commission to recommend changes to UCU’s democratic structures at a one-day special Congress, for discussion and voting on by branch delegates
We passed this motion, after some discussion, because we wanted to try to address the myriad issues raised by the USS dispute in a constructive way. Bath UCU passed the same motion and Bournemouth UCU one very similar. Many branches and many members of the union have expressed concern about the way in which the decision was made to ballot members about the UUK proposal of 23rd March. This included the fact that branch consultation was rushed through without proper time for discussion and debate, the lack of information around the offer, and the way in which the General Secretary’s office was used to encourage a vote to accept, despite no official recommendation being voted on by the Higher Education Committee.
There have been a range of responses to these concerns. More than 20 branches, including Sheffield, have called for a special Higher Education sector conference; there have been complaints about the General Secretary and some motions of no confidence in the General Secretary passed. As a branch, we believe that there are many questions that need answering about how the USS dispute has been handled, but we also believe that the questions of transparency, lack of information, and accountability raised in recent weeks have characterised previous national industrial disputes as well.
We believe that the best way to address these problems is to involve members and branches of the union in a conversation about how our union should work, and to seriously discuss whether our current national leadership structures are best suited to a campaigning, democratic and member-led union. We want to invite all branches to support this initiative, and be part of the discussion. This is not intended as a criticism of UCU as a union but a constructive assessment of where we are collectively. UCU is just 12 years old – the result of a merger between AUT and NATFHE – and is the biggest higher and further education union in the world. This is a fantastic achievement and is not in our eyes undermined at all by a frank conversation as to how the structures of the union function and how they can be improved.
UCU last underwent a democracy review in 2013, and you can read the report of that review here. However, this was a narrow process involving 10 Congress delegates, and not a wide ranging discussion within the union. We believe that since this review was undertaken, UCU has undergone several important shifts, not least throughout the USS and FE pay disputes currently ongoing. The political context nationally has also changed. We therefore believe that it is both timely and necessary to look again at how we work as a union, and that is why we passed the motion calling for a Democracy Review.
Unfortunately, this motion has been deemed not admissible to Congress by the Congress Business Committee (CBC). We have been told that the motion was ruled out of order because:
“it would involve Congress in decisions about the terms of appointment of the union’s officials, which is outside the scope of Congress under the rules of the union. Rule 29 makes it clear that this is the province of NEC as the employer of the union’s staff. Congress cannot pass motions inconsistent with the union’s rules.”
We are dismayed by this and dispute that it is a valid reason to rule out the motion. Rule 29, titled “Other Employees” does indeed state that:
29.1 Employees other than the General Secretary shall be engaged by the General Secretary under procedures agreed by the National Executive Committee.
29.2 Employees shall be engaged under conditions of employment agreed by the National Executive Committee.
What we are calling for is a review of our democratic structures, which should for us include a discussion on the appropriate term limits of elected full time officials, and also the appropriate number of elected full time officials. We have no interest in discussing or challenging the conditions of employment of “other employees”, which is what Rule 29 relates to, and we do not see this rule as relevant to a discussion about the term limits of elected representatives of the union.
We have also been told that it was the view of CBC that the motion “might be taken to include implied criticisms of staff, which is not allowed under Congress Standing Order 49ii.” Again, we want to make clear that we are not criticising employees of the union, who work hard for UCU and have no democratic authority themselves but can only implement the decisions of Congress, the NEC and the General Secretary. Our issue and the issue for all members as we see it is that we lack a cohesive collective leadership.
We believe that key issues we’re currently facing stem from the fact that UCU’s National Executive Committee is under-resourced, with elected representatives unable to access sufficient facility time to function as a leadership body of the union, and that this, combined with the fact that the only full-time elected official of the union is the General Secretary, means that an inordinate and perhaps unmanageable amount of power is concentrated in the hands of one person. We note that other similarly sized unions in Britain, like the PCS and the RMT, have two and four elected full time officials respectively, and smaller but better resourced and more visible National Executive Committees.
However, we understand that while looking again at the structure and function of our union leadership represents a good starting point to us, that other branches and bodies of the union may disagree. We don’t want to force our solutions on the union, but we do want to begin a discussion throughout the union’s structures on how we can most effectively continue the struggle to build a campaigning, democratic and member-led UCU. We ask that all UCU members discuss this idea, and that Congress delegates seriously consider supporting our challenge to CBC at Congress. We have achieved fantastic things together as a union over the last 12 years. We have a challenge ahead of us, but also an opportunity to develop the most cohesive, responsive, accountable and most importantly collective leadership for our union. Please support our challenge to CBC and our motion for a Democracy Review within UCU.
Jess Meacham (Sheffield UCU Education Officer)
Sam Morecroft (Sheffield UCU Anticasualisation Officer)
On behalf of Sheffield UCU
Why which way to vote on the latest UUK proposal should be an easy decision
Published: 18:00, Monday 2 April 2018
With UCU members about to be balloted on a proposal from Universities UK aimed at ending the USS dispute, our branch Communications Officer, Sam Marsh, argues that the current wording offers no guarantees, and explains the thought processes that has led him to come to an easy decision.
When details of the proposal from Universities UK (UUK) dropped in the late afternoon of Friday 23 March, they caused considerable excitement. References to the status quo and expert panels to rexamine the valuation looked, on first glance, like the battle was over: we’d been listened to, and UUK had backed down.
Very quickly it became clear that things were far from what they seemed. The reference to the status quo? That expires in April 2019, the earliest any changes would come in anyway. The expert panel? That will only have the power to make recommendations to the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC). A pension broadly comparable with current arrangements? What does this mean, precisely?
By Monday, a branch meeting of over 250 fellow Sheffield UCU members sent a clear message to the national leadership, instructing our negotiators to take the proposal back for further talks. Many other branches did similar.
Unfortunately, such calls for revisions were not heard, as the HEC voted 10-8 to send the proposal out to all members for a vote, unamended. Significant controversy has flowed from the unsupported claim by the General Secretary that the majority of branches supported this course of action.
Nevertheless, that decision has been made, and it is now for members to decide which way to vote. Allow me to pose and answer some questions which, for me, make the decision easy.
Do we know what pension we’ll end up with?
This is the fundamental question we should be asking of any proposal put to us. And, on this, the UUK proposal tells us nothing. The closest we get is:
“If in the light of [the expert panel’s assessment of the valuation] contributions or benefits need to be adjusted in either direction, both parties are committed to agree to recommend to the JNC and the trustee, measures aimed at stabilising the fund to provide a guaranteed pension broadly comparable with current arrangements.”
This is a commitment to a recommendation, not a commitment to a guaranteed, broadly comparable pension. My experience of negotiating is that one should never leave to trust things that aren’t explicit. The commitments in the UUK proposal are far too vague to provide the basis of a resolution, particularly when trust between UCU and UUK is running so low.
Embarassingly, it seems that even Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of Cambridge, is aware of this, suggesting amendments of the kind that UCU should have already demanded, such as a guaranteed minimum outcome. It is essential that our negotiators get the chance to push for such guarantees.
Are we likely to end up with something we’ve already rejected?
The dispute started because of a plan to force a defined contribution (DC) scheme onto us. Later, members forecfully threw back an ACAS-facilitated deal for a significantly watered-down defined benefit (DB) scheme. Have these gone away for good?
The JNC ruling which sealed in the DC scheme still stands. Procedurally, until that decision is revoked, it is still the default course for the USS trustee to follow, starting with the statutory consultation of all USS members. A letter from UUK chief executive Alistair Jarvis to Sally Hunt gave assurances that UUK “does not intend to return to the January JNC proposal to consult on moving to a DC scheme”: another weak statement that, at a time of low trust, must be tightened up.
Notice also that the reference in Alistair Jarvis’s letter to “meaningful” defined benefits coincides precisely with the language used to describe the DB deal we rejected. If, like me, you consider that proposal to be short of what we should be settling for, this similarity should be of significant concern.
Should we put faith in the expert panel to solve our problems?
This is a big unknown. Notice that the “terms of reference, the order of work and timescales” for the expert group are still to be determined (point 3 of the proposal). This is very important, as the scope of the panel will make a big difference.
The main problem the valuation has is that it conforms to deep-set actuarial orthodoxy and, to some extent, regulation that does not appear well suited to the status of USS as an open, ongoing, multi-employer scheme. Making an impact on that aspect will require heavy thinking and analysis, and will not be a quick fix.
My view is that the panel is to be welcomed, but that it should be seen as a group which can think for the longer-term. While the panel may have a positive influence over the current valuation, this is far from guaranteed, and as such the existence of the panel should not be seen as enough to settle the current dispute.
Can we settle for now, and strike again if we don’t like what happens down the line?
While this is tempting, especially as we all want the dispute to be over, it has the potential to mean we have to do this all again in a year’s time, with students again getting hit hard. When we are close to an agreement that means something, it seems to me essential that we do all we can to tighten it up enough to make strike action next year unlikely, perhaps even out of the question.
We currently have significant leverage to force concessions: Universities UK called our bluff in the first wave of action, and they can’t afford to do it again. Students must not have their courses further disrupted for the sake of reasonable demands on tighter wording on an agreement. It is for UUK, not us, to ensure that that the action doesn’t happen.
Can this proposal be improved?
Of course it can! Here are some thoughts on things that should, at the minimum, go into the proposal:
- A guaranteed minimum outcome. This could take the form of a minimum contribution rate from employers. For example, the UCU proposal tabled immediately prior to the ACAS talks required a 2.7% employer increase, which costed against the September valuation may be seen as an acceptable outcome. If UUK pledged this amount, and we had a clear statement of what such increases would achieve against the November valuation, we would have a basis for an absolute minimum, improvable subject to the panel’s findings.
- More detail on the timescales for the expert panel. I would like to see it made explicit that this group will work to a two-stage process, with dates included in the proposal. Firstly, the panel should report on the current valuation as best it can by a specified date sufficiently early to influence the outcome of this valuation. It should then move onto the bigger job of discussion the underlying methodology with an aim to forming high-level recommendations on how it sees the future of valuing USS, with a view to report in time to influence the 2020 valuation at the latest.
- A commitment to a review of scheme governance.
The structure of the JNC and USS board appears to have been a significant factor in arriving at the current deadlock, with UUK finding it too easy to push heavy-handed changes through the formal processes. Our branch passed a motion early in the dispute calling for the voting rights of the independent JNC chair to be removed, which would mean that agreement would have to be reached between UCU and UUK before changes could be implemented, using ACAS if necessary. The structure of the USS board, currently 3 UCU/4 UUK/5 independent trustees, should also be subject to discussion: as UUK have the chair, should UCU gain a trustee at UUK’s expense? It may be that changes are necessary to ensure that fairer settlements are reached in the future, to the benefit of all parties.
Are the USS board and the Pensions Regulator going to stop any improvements to the scheme?
The ideas above would not need approval by either USS or the Pensions Regulator. True, both parties are likely to be resistant to amending valuations or allow through a fundamentally different approach, but an expert panel should provide the intellectual muscle to make progress, especially with UUK and UCU backing the output from such a group. Importantly, the chair of the USS board is a UUK-appointed trustee.
I have found it important to remember throughout this dispute that it is not our fault that students are having their degrees disrupted, but the fault of Universities UK. We did all we could to try to make sure that employers were listening, and that this valuation never became a dispute (I devoted three years of my spare time to it!).
I am so grateful for the incredible support students have shown to us during this campaign, and do not take it for granted. That said, if rejecting this proposal leads to further strike action, it will be because UUK have continued to resist reasonable solutions to the dispute. In such a situation, I trust students to continue to see the injustice and correctly apportion the blame to those responsible.
We must recognise that this is a huge step forward from the 23rd Jan decision, and that this change in the employers’ position is a direct result of the power of our strike action. In the end, it is only our organisation, industrial strength and willingness to mobilise which will protect our pensions, now and in the future.
Women to be hardest hit by proposed university pension scheme changes
This guest blog by Martin Heneghan, Jo Grady and Liam Foster explains why any movement towards a defined contribution pension system poses a direct threat to women’s income in retirement. As university staff are on strike to protect their pensions, it is important to remember the proposed cuts will hurt women more than men.
University staff have taken the difficult decision to take industrial action against their employers as a consequence of the imposition of a significant cut to their income in retirement. University and College Union (UCU), estimates pension cuts will leave university staff on average nearly £10,000 worse off per year, totalling £200,000 over 20 years. However, this cut will not be spread evenly; women are set to be more adversely affected than men. Here we outline the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and demonstrate that they pose a direct threat to the adequacy of women’s pensions in particular.
On average, women have a smaller pension than men in any system. This is partly a consequence of gendered discrimination in the labour market, which means women earn less than men. As research from Grady shows, it is also a result of gender blind pension systems that ignore the gendered occupational life course, taking the experience of men as default when formulating pension policy. Women are more likely to leave the formal labour market for caring roles, which reduces both their income over the life course and their career progression. Also, when they do return to the labour market, they tend to take up part-time work, due to caring responsibilities. We also know that the ethnic pay gap, leaves BME women with even lower salaries, and lower pension incomes. None of these intersecting inequalities is reflected in occupational pension systems that are gender and ethnicity blind, and recognise only paid employment as a way to accrue pension income. In a defined benefit final salary scheme, men on average have a higher income at the point of retirement and therefore a higher pension. Some of this is mitigated in the current defined benefit USS scheme, which is a proportion of the average income, rather than the final salary. However, given that women earn less over the life course (not just in universities, but in general), their average salary is smaller and their pension less generous. Under the proposed USS reform, these gendered effects will be exacerbated.
The proposed changes will shift USS members from a defined benefit (DB) to a defined contribution scheme (DC), this switch transfers risk from the employer to the employee, with individual pension scheme members directly taking on more risk. However, there is substantial evidence that women are more risk averse in investment decisions than men. Research conducted about the Australian university superannuation fund (UniSuper), found that women made more conservative investment decisions and as a result received smaller pensions than men. This warning from the Australian university sector should be heeded by those in the UK committed to gender equality, as it could beckon a growing gender gap in retirement income here in the UK. This risk adversity by women is not surprising as those on lower incomes are usually the most risk averse, and given it is women who tend to earn less than men, they are unlikely to want to engage in risky investments with their pension. Furthermore, asking people to be their own pensions investment manager is not gender neutral. As research from Foster and Heneghan shows, there is a gendered difference in how men and women engage with financial information, so encouraging university workers to become financial decision makers cannot ignore these wider structural forces that influence individual decisions.
DC schemes also fail to offer the maternity coverage that DB schemes do. In DB schemes, women receive full maternity coverage on the DB part of the pension scheme. If their maternity pay is less than the pre-maternity salary, the employer makes up the shortfall to keep contributions records as if the maternity leave had never been taken. Employer contributions are also paid for up to 39 weeks of maternity leave (note that women who take one year of maternity leave see their pension reduced!). For those who also take advantage of the USS 1% match into the university investment builder, any shortfall in salary is not made up by the employer. With the proposal to transfer all pension contributions into the investment builder, if the current terms were kept as they are, women who take maternity leave would be adversely affected.
In addition to the removal of benefits and coverage the DB gives women, the switch DC also presents women with larger administration costs. Mainly because in a DC system the cost of administration is usually borne by the individual, whereas in a defined benefit one the cost is usually borne by the employer. In a DC scheme, the administration is more complex, and therefore, more costly. It often requires an individual fund manager for each account. These costs can have a dramatic impact on the value of a pension plan. This is particularly problematic for women and lower earners, as it means that a larger proportion of the accumulated fund is devoted to administration charges.
It is also worth remembering that the establishment of DB pensions was not the product of employer benevolence, successive generations of workers – both male and female – have actively worked to improve pension rights. Furthermore, whilst it is true that DB pensions offer certainty and income security in older age for employees, they also offer advantages to employers. A DB scheme was, and remains, a way to foster loyalty from employees. For a firm that had made a substantial investment in training its workforce, it wanted to ensure this investment was contained in the firm. Do universities not want to do the same? It was also a way to keep job opportunities open to younger workers, by offering income security to older ones. The push for increased flexibility in the labour market, and wider economy, has seen policy makers encourage DC schemes, so that workers can take their pension pot with them to a new firm. However, there are strong reasons to suggest this is not the way the university sector should seek to operate. For research and teaching staff, the sector has likely already made a substantial investment in their training. Offering a DB pension system is a way to enhance retention of academic staff. For women, this is particularly important. There is already significant precarity in an academic career. Short term contracts and geographical relocation are increasingly prevalent. Given that this precariousness also happens at a time when many women are beginning a family, the withdrawal of certainty in retirement, may be the final straw in their decision to leave the profession for good. In addition, the oversupply of PhD graduates is well documented. Reducing the pension income of those close to retirement will likely see them stay in the labour force for longer, further exacerbating the mismatch in the supply and demand of PhD graduates.
We must also remember that a pension is a deferred wage. It is not free money in retirement. A guaranteed and predictable pension in retirement is payment of income foregone during employment. Moreover, considerable financial sacrifice is made in obtaining a postgraduate degree, a doctoral degree and then entering a precarious labour market, and the promise of a stable and meaningful pension in later life, helps offsets those sacrifices. In a patriarchal society it is a reasonable assumption these sacrifices are even greater for women, and greater still for women of colour. Women who have navigated all the challenges that forging an academic career places in front of them, should not have their income security in old age threatened.