Fighting for Pensions Justice in UK Higher Education

by Academics for Pension Justice

Fighting for Pensions Justice in UK Higher Education

by Academics for Pension Justice
Academics for Pension Justice
Case Owner
Led by Dr Ruth Stirton, Professors Alastair Hudson, Lindsay Stirton, T.T. Arvind and Nicky Priaulx, we are working with a network of academics to pursue justice for all USS members.
on 15th March 2018
pledged of £50,000 stretch target from 1958 pledges
Academics for Pension Justice
Case Owner
Led by Dr Ruth Stirton, Professors Alastair Hudson, Lindsay Stirton, T.T. Arvind and Nicky Priaulx, we are working with a network of academics to pursue justice for all USS members.

Latest: Oct. 4, 2019

Academics for Pensions Justice: big news

Academics for Pensions Justice have obtained a legal opinion from a leading pensions law QC at Wilberforce Chambers. 

Our QC has assessed the scheme rules, pensions regulation and pensions law. T…

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We invite contributions to a crowdfund for specialist legal advice about potential mismanagement by the Board of Trustees of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). As members of the USS pension scheme ourselves, we are disturbed at the way that the scheme has been managed and the alleged size of the deficit identified by the Trustees. On behalf of all USS members, we are seeking specialist legal advice about our rights against the trustees.

Pensions law is highly complex.  We need your support to help us raise £30,000 within the next few days to instruct a leading pensions QC.  They will advise about whether the actions and behaviour of USS Trustees may amount to a breach of trust and breach of fiduciary duties. Our campaign enhances the current UCU strike effort by highlighting fundamental concerns about USS governance and management.

The People Behind this Initiative 

This crowdfunding initiative is led by Dr Ruth Stirton (Sussex), Professor Alastair Hudson (Strathclyde), Professor Lindsay Stirton (Sussex), Professor T.T. Arvind (Newcastle) and Professor Nicky Priaulx (Cardiff).  We are supported by a broader network of experts from Universities across the UK with extensive expertise in economics, statistics, the law of equity and trusts, pensions law and labour law.

Why we are taking these steps 

We are united in pursuit of justice for all members of the USS pension scheme. It is unacceptable that staff in higher education face a future pension income on which they cannot afford to live. A University lecturer recently explained to his Vice-Chancellor how the proposed pensions changes would devastate his retirement income:

I have been a Lecturer for 15 years. I am a 40 year old married man. If the proposed changes to pensions go ahead, my pension will be cut from £20,000 per year to £8,000. University staff pay growth has been fixed at around 1% since 2009, reducing our incomes by 17% in real terms. By contrast, in 2014 the highest-paid executive at the USS received a 50% pay increase to £900,000. Currently, two USS staff earn more than £1 million per year.

Large numbers of economists and statisticians have asserted that the decimation of USS pensions is premised upon the construction of a ‘Phantom Deficit’. Calls are now being made, including by the Principal of the University of St Andrews, for "a review of the governance of USS, which has played a significant role in leading us to the current situation".

The USS Board of Trustees plans to end the Defined Benefit pension scheme and we believe their decision-making must be challenged using all available means. Strike action is important.  A complementary legal action will put concerns about mismanagement and governance on a fresh and urgent legal footing.

What is the legal advice we seek?

We will use funds raised to obtain a legal opinion from a leading barrister on whether the conduct of the USS Trustees complies with the legal duties they owe to the pension fund beneficiaries. The law imposes a number of requirements on pension trustees about how they should exercise their decision-making powers. It is an overriding principle that they must act in the interests of the beneficiaries of the pension fund.  Furthermore, pensions trustees must do so in a way that displays utmost loyalty to the beneficiaries – they do not simply owe duties to the employers. There are serious questions to be answered about the conduct of the USS Trustees. In particular, we are concerned about their uncompromisingly hard-line approach to de-risking, the flaws in their consultation, and their refusal to engage with suggested alternative approaches put forward by beneficiaries.

This makes it important to understand our position in law.  We want to identify the possibilities which pensions law offers us all, to control the behaviour of the USS Trustees.

Please Donate

Please donate to join our fight to preserve pensions that Higher Education staff can count on. Become part of this action and help us fight for pensions justice in USS.

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Update 5

Academics for Pension Justice

Oct. 4, 2019

Academics for Pensions Justice: big news

Academics for Pensions Justice have obtained a legal opinion from a leading pensions law QC at Wilberforce Chambers. 

Our QC has assessed the scheme rules, pensions regulation and pensions law. The opinion has considered all historic and recent actions and behaviour of USS Trustee Ltd and the trustees, and has concluded that there are good grounds to take this matter to court based on breach of trust.

We have now completed the tasks which we promised to undertake, having assembled and synthesised a colossal amount of material and evidence - when printed it filled 10 lever-arch files - on which legal advice could be taken. We are pleased and positive about the advice we have received. However, taking things further requires an investment of time and attention that we are not in a position to provide.

The time has come to pass the matter onto an organisation with the time, personnel and resources required to pursue this matter to the best advantage of USS members. Having discussed the matter with the University and College Union (UCU) at the highest levels, we have concluded that the Union is best placed to act on the advice we have received. We will be transferring the materials we have assembled to the UCU in due course. We will continue to support UCU in an informal advisory capacity. We have confidence in General Secretary Jo Grady to act for the good of all members of the USS pension scheme.

We are incredibly grateful for all the support we have received. In particular, everyone who contributed to our crowd-funding campaign, everyone who helped with gathering information and supporting materials, our solicitors Ince Gordon Dadds, and our wonderful QC.

Update 4

Academics for Pension Justice

April 4, 2019

April 2019 Update

Dear Fighting for Pensions Justice Supporters,

This is an update to let you know where things currently stand, and to give you a sense of the roadmap from here.

Firstly, after nearly a year of hard work, we have now put together the outline instructions and four bundles of supporting documents, and sent them to a leading QC (a senior barrister) who is one of the top specialists in this area of law, and who will now evaluate the merits of our case against the USS. As those of you who are lawyers will know, instructing a QC isn't a matter of just going to them with a query. It requires, instead, a clear set of issues and questions and an organised set of supporting documents. We have, accordingly, spent the past few months painstakingly poring over a mass of information, including every single document USS has produced over the past several years, to identify the key issues, draw them together into a formal case for the QC's opinion, and select the documents and evidence that the QC will need to review to evaluate our case. This task alone speaks to a complex process which has involved hundreds of hours of work. By way of illustration, the first draft of our instructions to counsel amounted to 21 pages, or 5077 words. But these were accompanied by 95 enclosures which, when printed out filled some 10 lever-arch files. On reflection, and after advice from our solicitors, Gordon Dadds, we were able to reduce the enclosures significantly. Not only does this reduce the costs by quite a bit, but it will give the QC greater focus to direct his advice. This is exactly how the advice of a specialist QC should be used.

In terms of what happens next, the process of getting a legal opinion is iterative and always involves a fair bit of back-and-forth with the barrister. The QC will start by carrying out a preliminary survey of the instructions and supporting documents. Having done that, they will then come back to us with specific queries and requests for further information or clarifications. We will respond in writing to these, and supply further evidence if required. We may then wish to use the remaining funds to ask some follow-up questions if this is likely to be helpful. We expect this to take a few more months.

We acknowledge that there has been some impatience expressed in social media with the pace of progress, and even the suggestion that the length of time we have taken is evidence that our work is going nowhere. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is just how long things take in the law, as the lawyers among you will know. Pensions law is an especially complex beast. It involves the general law of trusts, contracts, and civil wrongs in addition to statutory regulation, and the rights and wrongs of a particular case depend not just on the law but also on the specific details of the facts. This means it takes time, and requires a lot of hands-on work from us, but this is what we need to do in order to get an informed legal view on the merits of a case against USS Ltd. We do not propose at this stage to summarise what we have asked the QC to opine on. As you will doubtless have seen from the tenor of the correspondence USS have recently sent out, they are continuing take an aggressive stance on the concerns we all share. Given that, it is vital to ensure that they do not anticipate the direction in which our case is going, which they inevitably will if we share it even in a private mailing to you: information sent to over 2000 individuals simply cannot be kept confidential even with the best will in the world. What we will say is that we are confident that we have put together a set of legal issues and supporting documents that gets to the heart of why we are all so outraged by the way USS has been behaving towards us.

Our next communication will be when we are in receipt of the finalised opinion the barrister delivers on this case. There is still work that needs to happen before we reach that point – but we promise you that we will continue to be working hard alongside the barrister.

Finally, for the time being, we wish to extend our thanks to you as supporters of this campaign and to all those that have worked closely with us throughout this process. We are immensely grateful to so many people that have very generously volunteered their time and expertise to assist us. This campaign is the product of a large pro bono collaboration that spans a wide variety of disciplines and sectors, comprised of individuals and groups that are truly extraordinary. In this latter regard, our particular thanks to the spectacular USS Briefs team - your support and work has been utterly invaluable to the Fighting for Pensions Justice campaign.

Best wishes, and solidarity,

Arvind, Ruth, Nicky, Alastair and Lindsay

Academics for Pensions Justice

Update 3

Academics for Pension Justice

Jan. 6, 2019

New Year's Update

It is now some nine and a half months since we started a crowdfunding campaign to raise the funds to gain specialist legal advice about potential mismanagement by the Board of Trustees of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). During that time, we have been engaged in an exciting body of work that was made possible by you! All of you have so generously donated to this campaign, enabling us to successfully raise the funds necessary to secure high quality professional legal advice.

As many of you might well appreciate, this involves a great deal more than going to a professional lawyer and highlighting mere dissatisfaction with USS Ltd. As we were aware from the outset, and at the point when we were seeking to Crowdfund, the law in the area of pensions is complex, and in practice, affords trustees a considerable amount of discretion. Despite there now being extensive commentary surrounding USS Ltd that highlights various concerns around how they have behaved in relation to our pensions, it is not always the case that what seems problematic in non-legal terms reveals a legal cause of action. One needs to present a series of issues, based on substance, facts and evidence, that in principle may highlight areas of legal susceptibility on the part of USS Ltd. This is the part of the job that it has been our privilege to undertake and co-ordinate. We knew from the outset that this task needed time and attention.

At this stage, we are delighted to report that after many thousands of hours of pro bono work by many people investigating the facts behind USS Ltd’s stewardship of the pension fund, everything is now with specialist pensions lawyers to take this to the next stage.

Naturally, we will keep you informed of further developments. Nevertheless, we are extremely excited to reach this point – and it is also an excellent moment for us to extend our heartfelt thanks to a lot of people. We are so grateful to all of you for your support and brilliant sense of community – just as we are so incredibly grateful to the vital network, consisting of a lot of amazing individuals and groups that have provided us with crucial information and analysis that has enabled us reach this important stage.

Update 2

Academics for Pension Justice

July 4, 2018

APJ's Open Letter to the Joint Expert Panel and USS

Academics for Pensions Justice (APJ) has written an Open Letter addressed to the members of the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) and the Board of Trustees of USS Limited (USSL). 

This letter demands that USSL provides full disclosure of the data, assumptions and modelling approach underpinning its contested 2017 valuation. The letter notes long-standing concerns raised by financial experts about the valuation and the lack of transparency on the part of USSL. Now alert to the fact that the only party entitled to that information on technical grounds appears to be USSL itself, APJ notes a worrying conflict of interest, and raises the possibility that in the absence of publicity and pressure, USSL will not provide full disclosure. 

Demanding both full disclosure from USSL and a public statement from the JEP that full disclosure has been provided, the letter also highlights why this step is critically necessary for the successful functioning of the JEP. It notes the litany of prior valuation ‘reviews’ that have taken place without this critical information. This time, major stakeholders, including UUK, are calling for transparency on the part of USSL. This is also the expectation of the many thousands of USS members who now look to the JEP to undertake a full and rigorous review of the 2017 valuation in a way that ‘cuts new ground’. For this, full disclosure on the part of USSL is urgent, critical and necessary. 

Read the letter in full

We have sent the letter to both the JEP and to USSL (care of its lawyers) and we have published the letter via the new Open USS Pension Panel 2018 (OpenUPP). Read the letter in full.

About Open USS Pension Panel 2018 

Open USS Pension Panel 2018 is an ‘initiative from USSbriefs that intervenes in the ongoing USS pension dispute by tracking the USS Joint Expert Panel (JEP).

Update 1

Academics for Pension Justice

April 18, 2018

Information Request to USS Trustees

Concerns about whether the USS valuation methodology meets technical actuarial standards have been articulated by numerous financial experts in the higher education sector for several years now. Experts have also highlighted their concern with the corresponding lack of transparency on the part of USS and emphasise that for robust analysis and understanding of the valuation, disclosure of a range of information around the valuation will be critical. 

The Fighting for Pensions Justice in UK Higher Education Campaign, of which you are a critical part, is tackling these concerns head on. Last week our solicitors, Gordon Dadds, wrote to Professor Sir David Eastwood, chairman of the USS trustees. The letter gave Universities Superannuation Scheme Ltd (USSL) 10 days to produce the full actuarial valuation and other associated reports that have not been shared with members of the scheme. The letter was copied to Frank Field MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Pensions, Guy Opperman MP, and the Financial Reporting Council

We are currently awaiting a response from Professor Sir David Eastwood. We will update you in the event of a response or any decision to take further action.

Want to read on? 

We will keep you updated with regular and brief progress reports on our CrowdJustice site. If you want a more detailed insight into what we are doing, and see updates around relevant news coverage, please visit us at the Academics for Pensions Justice website or follow us on Facebook: You can read more about this particular development in a post entitled 'Information Request to USS Trustees'. 

Again, our thanks to you for your generous support which has made it possible for us to work together to fight for pensions justice. 

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