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Briefing on the USS - July 2014

EPF briefing on the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) - July 2014

Key points:

  • The last triennial valuation as at 31 March 2011 showed that USS’s liabilities exceeded its assets by £2.9 billion and changes to benefits and contribution rates were made as a result. Since 2011 this deficit has increased significantly and has been very volatile. In June 2013 it was £7.9 billion.
  • There are a number of reasons why the USS’s deficit has continued to increase since 2011 including falling bond yields, reduced optimism about investment returns and the increasing longevity of USS members.
  • The USS Trustees and the employers are in agreement that a revised funding and benefit plan must be put in place to deal with this much larger deficit and address the volatility in the USS funding level.
  • The USS Trustees are also concerned about the risk that the deficit could continue to grow and aim to reduce the risk of this happening in the future. They propose to do this by reducing the investment risk that they take with the USS’s assets.
  • If the USS Trustees’ proposals to reduce investment risk were to go ahead, this would increase the deficit from £7 billion to £13.1 billion calculated as at September 2013. This would push the contributions required from employers and employees to unaffordable levels. Therefore the USS Trustees have prompted a review of the benefits provided by USS in order to ensure that USS remains affordable.
  • Proposed changes to benefits are the subject of a consultation by Universities UK with employers during the period July-September 2014 and are summarised in section 3.
  • Following the completion of the employer consultation Universities UK will hold further discussions with the University and College Union (UCU) before submitting proposals for benefit changes to the USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) later in the autumn.  If it is determined that changes to benefits are required, a statutory consultation with affected employees will follow.

1.  Funding position of the USS

The last triennial valuation of the USS as at 31 March 2011 showed that the scheme’s liabilities exceeded its assets by £2.9 billion and changes to benefits and contribution rates were made as a result.

Notwithstanding the changes made in 2011 this deficit has increased significantly. It reached £9.8 billion in March 2012, then £11.5 billion in March 2013. It has also been very volatile; it had swung back down to £7.9 billion by June 2013. The outcome of the 31 March 2014 valuation – available at the end of 2014 – is expected to show continued growth in the value of the USS’s assets, but also the continuation of a very substantial deficit. The main reason for this large and volatile deficit has been the continuing global economic challenges since the financial crisis of 2008.

The closure of the USS final salary section and its replacement by a career revalued benefit (CRB)section for new entrants from October 2011 was the primary change adopted in response to the valuation outcome in 2011. It was intended to reduce the deficit over time and contain the cost of future benefits. However, this has not happened and instead the deficit has continued to grow. 

There are a number of reasons why the USS’ deficit has continued to increase since 2011 including:

  • The continuing global economic challenges which have had a detrimental impact on the value of the USS’s assets.
  • The Bank of England’s programme of quantitative easing in response to the financial crisis has increased the price of bonds (gilts) and, as a result, the value of the USS’s liabilities (being the benefits that the USS has promised to pay) have increased substantially.
  • Members of the USS are living longer so the pension scheme has to pay pensions in retirement for longer than planned.

2.  Proposed response to the USS funding deficit

The USS Trustees and the employers are in agreement that action must be taken to deal with this much larger deficit than initially anticipated and the volatility in the USS funding level must be addressed. There is also a need to ensure that the scheme’s reliance on the participating employers does not increase. This provides an assurance that the employers can comfortably support the USS going forward and also that the employers (and employees) can be reassured  regarding the sustainability of the scheme.

In December 2013 the USS Trustees wrote to Universities UK setting out their views on how the funding and investment strategy of the USS should be managed. The USS Trustees estimated that the employers would need to pay a contribution rate of 25.1% in order to retain the current employee benefits. Under the cost sharing rule introduced in 2011 this would mean that the employee contribution rate would have to increase to 12.3%. We consider that these rates are unaffordable for employers and employees alike.

The USS Trustees are also concerned about the risk that the deficit could continue to grow in future and aim to reduce the risk of this happening. They propose to do this by reducing the investment risk that they take with the USS’s assets. Currently the investment risk carried by USS is relatively high due to the fact that the majority of the USS’s assets are held in equities (stocks and shares) rather than government bonds. However, by reducing the investment risk (and the expected rate of investment return) the cost of funding the benefits provided by the USS increases. This is because the USS Trustees can no longer rely on the higher investment returns they predict they will obtain from equities and instead need more cash contributions from employers (and employees) to fund the benefits.

Recalculating the deficit based on the USS Trustees’ proposals increased it from around £7 billion to £13.1 billion as at September 2013. This would push the contributions required even higher, to unaffordable levels for employers and employees. Therefore the Trustees prompted a review of the benefits provided by USS in order to ensure that they remained affordable and to allow the USS Trustees the scope to reduce the investment risk in the scheme.

3.  The employers’ approach to scheme benefits

Universities UK as the employers’ representative has maintained a continuing dialogue with the University and College Union (UCU) and the USS Trustees about the changes that may be needed and these discussions will continue over the next few months. This means that the exact details of the proposed benefit changes that Universities UK will submit to the USS Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) in the autumn have not yet been finalised although the need for further change is clear. 

Universities UK as the employers’ representative has proposed the following changes to the benefit structure:

Defined benefits (DB)

  • The final salary section of the USS will be closed to existing members.
  • The final salary benefits that existing USS members build up before the date the changes are implemented will be calculated based on their individual salaries at the date the changes come into force and from that date on will be increased each year in line with the Consumer Prices Index (CPI). This means that benefits at retirement will no longer be linked to a member’s final salary at retirement.
  • All members of the USS – both existing members and new members – will join the career revalued benefits (CRB) section of the USS for future service.
  • Benefits in the CRB section will be based on the same accrual rate as currently – members will build up benefits based on an accrual rate of 1/80th of pensionable salary per year. Each year their benefits will be increased in line with CPI (guaranteed up to 5% with half of any additional increase in CPI up to 15% i.e. a maximum increase of 10% per year).
  • However, benefits in the CRB section will only apply to salary up to a salary threshold (i.e. a fixed upper amount of pensionable pay). This threshold has not yet been set but, depending on affordability, Universities UK’s aim is to maximise the number of scheme members who will fall below the salary threshold.  
  • The Normal Retirement Age in USS will remain linked to increases in the State Pension Age.
  • No changes are being made to members’ ability to take a tax free cash lump sum at retirement.

Defined Contribution (DC) benefits

  • A new section of the USS will be created that will provide DC benefits (which depend on the amounts contributed, the time they have been invested and investment performance; they are not guaranteed).
  • Alongside the CRB pension, employees in the USS will be able to pay an additional contribution into a DC section up to the salary threshold and employers will match the contribution up to a fixed amount up to this threshold. The level of contribution that will be matched has yet to be set and will depend on affordability, but will mean that every member of the USS can build up an extra pension pot on top of their CRB pension. The new pension flexibilities introduced by the Government will mean that members will have greater choice in how they draw benefits from their DC pot, including the ability to take it all as cash, subject to income tax.
  • Higher earning members whose salary is above the salary threshold will still build up CRB benefits (plus DC benefits on any additional contributions they make in accordance with the above bullet point) on their salary up to the salary threshold, but their pension benefit on salary above the salary threshold will be covered by the new DC section. It is currently proposed that employers will contribute 12% of pensionable salary above the salary threshold into the DC section and employees will contribute 6.5%. 
  • The provision of a DC section enables greater risk to be shared between the employers and the employees, as the benefits payable from the DC pot are not guaranteed. By focusing the largest proportion of DC benefits on those USS members earning the most, the intention is to share the greatest risk with those who can afford to bear that risk while ensuring that all employees retain a minimum core DB pension.

Death in service and ill health benefits

  • Death in service and ill health benefits have yet to be finalised but will be broadly comparable to those provided now. Members’ death in service/ill health benefits will derive from the DB section (comprising both final salary benefits up to the date of change and CRB thereafter) up to the salary threshold. For those members whose salary is above the salary threshold part of these benefits will come from the DC section, potentially through an additional insured solution.

Employer and employee contribution rates

  • The employers aim to maintain employer contribution rates within the range 16-18%.  Any increase in the current employer contribution rate of 16% could trigger an increase in the employee contribution rate to the CRB section (currently 6.5%) under the agreed cost sharing arrangements (2/3rds of the increase being paid by the employers and 1/3 by scheme members).

4.  Timetable

The proposed changes summarised in section 3 are the subject of a consultation by Universities UK with employers from July to September 2014.  Following the completion of this consultation Universities UK will hold further discussions with the University and College Union before submitting proposals to the JNC.

If it is determined that changes to benefits are required, a statutory consultation undertaken by employers with affected employees will follow. This statutory consultation must run for a minimum period of 60 days. This consultation is not just with USS members but any employee who is eligible to join the USS but has chosen not to or who has been a member and has since opted out. Any employers who wish to make certain changes to their occupational pension scheme must consult with employees, and must demonstrate that they have taken the employees’ views into account before any decision is taken as to whether changes are implemented.

There is a long way to go yet but we are hoping that the detail of any proposed benefit changes will be available so that the employees can be consulted early in 2015. The consultation document will set out the employers’ case for change and provide detail on exactly what changes are proposed. This will include examples of the impact on member benefits and we hope to be able to provide modellers to assist individual members to understand the impact that any changes may have on their personal retirement benefits.


5.  Stakeholders involved in making decisions on the USS

Universities UK is the formal representative of USS participating employers on funding and investment issues. Universities UK is undertaking a consultation with all USS employers in the period July to September 2014 so that  their views on benefit changes are taken into account when Universities UK on behalf of the employers considers how it should respond to the results of the 2014 USS valuation.

The Employers Pensions Forum (EPF) was established jointly by Universities UK, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) and GuildHE in 2007 as a broad based forum for higher education institutions to discuss pensions issues and to enable the higher education sector to continue to offer staff access to high quality pensions schemes as an important part of the total remuneration package. The EPF USS Group, which consists of representatives from the USS employer institutions, has been considering the employers’ position in detail. It is advised by the actuarial consultancy Aon Hewitt.

The USS Trustee Board consists of 4 Universities UK representatives, 3 University and College Union representatives (including the pensioner director) and 5 independent trustees. The Board is responsible for managing the administration of the USS as well as the funding and investments to ensure that the right benefits are paid to the right people at the right time.

The University and College Union (UCU) is the trade union which represents scheme members on the Trustee Board, the JNC and other USS committees. It is briefing branches in July 2014 on the 2014 valuation and the employers’ approach to funding, investment and potential benefit changes. Universities UK and UCU will continue to meet regularly during the coming months to discuss the employers’ proposed approach and to finalise the detail of the benefit structure.

Decisions on proposed rule changes in USS are the responsibility of the JNC before they can be implemented. The JNC consists of 5 Universities UK representatives and 5 UCU representatives and one independent member who acts as a chair. The JNC has established a sub-committee consisting of employer and UCU representatives which has been meeting since last year in order to build the knowledge and understanding of the financial position of the USS.

The Pensions Regulator is responsible for the governance of occupational pension schemes in the UK including the USS scheme. The regulator has a duty to try to prevent schemes from falling into the Pension Protection Fund which was established to pay compensation to members of eligible defined benefit pension schemes when their employer goes insolvent. It does this by monitoring scheme funding levels and engaging with Trustees and employers in order to ensure that any scheme deficit is being dealt with appropriately. The regulator is particularly concerned about the level of risk being supported by the employer and will be actively involved with the trustees of a large scheme such as USS from the beginning of the valuation process.

6. How to find out more

FAQs on the funding deficit and the valuation process are available on the EPF website at www.employerspensionsforum.co.uk/en/EPF-News/news.cfm/20may14

FAQs on the valuation process are available on the USS website at www.uss.co.uk/news/Pages/ValuationFAQs.aspx  

An update for members on scheme funding can be found at www.uss.co.uk/schemeguide/funding/Pages/default.aspx 

This briefing is also available as a printable pdf document (below).

  EPF Briefing on the Universities Superannuation Scheme