The USS, or Universities Superannuation Scheme, is the pension scheme offered to academic and research staff, and some of the more senior support staff, at Cambridge and all other "pre-92" UK Universities. Staff at "post-92" Universities are instead members of the TPS, or Teachers Pension Scheme, which is common to sixth-form colleges and schools too.
The USS enjoyed a quiet life from its foundation in 1974 until about 2011. Since 2011 there has been a rapid, and confusing, sequence of benefit and contribution changes, provoking in the Spring of 2018 the longest strike recorded in the UK HE sector.
Unlike the TPS, the USS is not government-backed, but runs as a standard private pension scheme, regulated by the The Pension Regulator, and backed by a large investment fund of around £80bn. The Regulator requires that the fund is large enough to fund all future commitments. In other words, if the employers all suddenly disappeared, the fund should still be able to pay all benefits owing to current and future pensioners.
Most of the controversy relates to how one judges that the fund is sufficient. To do so one needs to estimate life expectancies, and investment returns relative to inflation. If it is judged that the fund is insufficient, and therefore there is a deficit, one must also judge whether any employers are likely to go bankrupt before paying their share of the deficit.
The USS is unusual in being a multi-employer defined benefit scheme, and one in which the majority of the employers are (effectively) public sector. This may make some of the rules which the Regulator would apply to other private sector schemes inappropriate.
The employee contribution rate was a modest 6.25% until 1982, and then a still modest 6.35% until 2011. After which it started rising rapidly, to 7.5%, then 8%, then 8.8%, then 9.6%, now 9.8%. More detail on contribution rates.
There is currently no general option to pay a lower amount. If one cannot afford 9.8% of salary, then one has to opt out entirely.
Until 2011 the scheme was a final salary scheme, and by 2016 it had transitioned to a career averaged earnings scheme for all members, not just new joiners. More detail on benefits and their changes, along with some comments on why abandoning final salary was good.
It is proposed to make three significant changes to benefits from April 2022:
- Reduce the career-averaged accrual rate from 1/75th to 1/85th
- Introduce a hard cap of 2.5% on all indexation
- Apply the career-averaged benefits to just the first £40k of salary, not the first £60k
Also a link to the USS's formal consultation on the changes.
And the last-minute employers' concession.
The pension fund should have sufficient assets to pay all currently accrued benefits. In other words, if suddenly everyone resigned from the scheme(!), the scheme should still be able to meet its liabilities.
An easy principle to state and to understand, but a very hard one to apply. Calculating liabilities involves guessing when people will die, and calculating whether assets are sufficient means predicting their future returns. The timescales involved are huge, for someone aged 25 might have made several years contribution, and so already be entitled to some form of pension in forty years time, a pension which might still be being drawn in seventy or even eighty years time.
So employees, employers, the USS trustees, and the Pensions Regulator, tend to disagree on how large any deficit is, or whether there even is a deficit. More detail on the USS deficit.
Leaving the USS
Can employers leave the USS? Effectively no. Can employers offer an alternative scheme to their employees? No. Can employees leave? Yes, but it is unclear that this would be wise. More details on leaving the USS.
Comparison with the TPS
Our colleagues in the newer University are members of the TPS, not the USS, so one might wish to compare the USS and TPS.
Comparison with Private Schemes
In the 1980s, private sector schemes were very variable. Some employers offered nothing, some offered things that were better, and cheaper, than the USS. Now the more generous private sector schemes are gone, and it is easy to argue that the USS is better than the average private scheme. The comparison is tricky, because pensions are just a part, albeit a significant one, of the total pay and reward package. Most employees in the USS are seeing dramatic detrimental changes to their pension at a time when their headline salaries are not keeping up with inflation, and are lagging behind those of equivalent jobs in the private sector.
What options should the USS be considering? A discussion of alternatives which might avoid the extremes of DB and DC.
In 2019, Trinity College Cambridge left the USS. This move was condemned by the UCU. But I argue that the Trinity's departure should not be condemned.