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Vice-Chancellor: We need to work together on pensions

colour portrait photograph of Vice Chancellor Robert Van der Noort

 

In all the recent news about the Conservative leadership election, ongoing Brexit speculation and the fevered (by cricketing standards) coverage of the Cricket World Cup, the recent Augar report has quickly disappeared from the media spotlight.

We, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of ignoring the recommendations, given their potentially far-ranging implications for the post-18 education sector. As I noted in the wake of the report’s release, it is estimated that the proposed tuition fee cut would cost universities £1.8 billion unless central government makes up the difference.

Today’s release of the QS World University Rankings has brought mixed results for Reading. We have retained our position in the Top 30 of UK institutions, staying at number 29. However, along with many other UK universities, we have dropped in the international rankings, down from 195 to 205 – although we retain our position in the top 20% of all institutions ranked, for the fifth year in a row. Along with other recent league tables, it highlights the pressure that we are under from both national and international competition.

Since I took up the position of Acting Vice-Chancellor last year, I have sought to be open about the challenges and opportunities that we face, and the need for us to have a financially sustainable base. This extends to all aspects of our operation, and you may have read earlier today about changes to our campus in Malaysia.

Among the financial issues for which we are planning is the October 2019 increase in USS pension contributions. If you have followed the USS valuation process, you will know it has been extremely complex with a lot of competing viewpoints. Following the establishment of a Joint Expert Panel, agreed by the UCU and Universities UK (on behalf of university employers), we have sought to engage with the ongoing discussions relating to the finalising of the 2017 USS valuation and the various proposals that sprang from the 2018 valuation. We may not agree with every aspect of these, but we have sought to act in the spirit of compromise that was called for by the Joint Expert Panel.

Last week, the UCU wrote to the heads of all universities involved with USS, including the University of Reading, stating that they had ‘run out of patience’ and seeking assurances that the University would pay for any future increases in contributions required from staff members. You can read this letter from the UCU and my reply here. Unfortunately, we are simply not in a position to do this. Clearly, I do not welcome this extra cost for colleagues, or for the University as an employer. But the reality is that for our pension scheme to have a long-term future – and that’s exactly what pensions are all about – there does not seem to be any other viable option than for both members and employers to jointly make an increase in contributions.

Unfortunately, this could lead to further dispute with the UCU and that would be regrettable given the disruption and anxiety that arose from last year’s industrial action, particularly for our students. I would much prefer to continue engaging openly and in good faith with the JEP process and to work constructively with our UCU branch on this and other local matters for the benefit of all colleagues.

 

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