What’s going on with university pension schemes in the United Kingdom?

What’s going on over there?

So far, academic staff (lecturers, researchers, librarians, curators, IT staff, technicians, administrative staff) at about 68 universities in the United Kingdom–pretty much every university incorporated before 1992–have been on job action for a total of fourteen days in February and March.  In between strikes, they are working to rule, and are now planning a big strike to hit during final examinations in the late spring, targeted at each institution to hit the largest number of students taking examinations and the time at which assessments are most often due.  It’s a massive engagement.  Almost more interesting than the strike itself has been the huge presence on social media.  Academic staff all over the UK are tweeting constantly, building wikis, filing freedom of information requests, researching details about opposition activity and posting them to Facebook, and sending information in large bits and bytes to each other.  Their biggest issue now on this front is consolidating all these masses of material.

What is the main issue?  Well, the touchpaper is a rather complicated question of the riskiness of the pension scheme.  It’s a pooled scheme with all the members, administered by the University Superannuation Scheme (USS).  Government regulations on the financial risk of possible pension liabilities mean that recently an evaluation of the USS suggested it was at the outer edge of acceptable risk, and could be in a deficit situation going forward, especially if some of the member institutions were to fail.  The other member institutions would have to pick up the pension obligations of those employed by any failed post-secondary institutions (called the “last man standing” issue). Individual institutions were asked if they found this amount of risk acceptable, and some of them (possibly 42%) said no.  The USS and Universities United Kingdom (UUK, the overarching body) decided to impose draconian changes to the plan in order to reduce the risk, and the result has been extensive negotiations, strikes, occupations by students (twenty different institutions as of 15 March 2018) in support of the academic staff, massive amounts of anger and outrage, and and the usual chaotic failures of governance and accountability.  Some universities are not on strike because they could not get enough members out to vote, others could have made strides to resolve the problem except that arcane procedural rules prevented debate, and some vice-chancellors have demonstrated leadership and accountability–but the majority have not. The University and College Union (UCU) seems sporadically to be at the negotiating table with the UUK, after a proposed settlement was rejected with contumely earlier this week by academic staff.

What is the real issue here?

Many issues are in play.  The pent-up anger that has a lot of academic staff out carrying signs does not necessarily reflect a deep understanding of the apparent problem: the pension regulations, the end of the final salary option, investment de-risking, a gradual shift from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans.  More importantly, academic staff at most universities in the UK feel disrespected, ignored, not consulted, not treated with the dignity that is appropriate.  And they are certainly right.  But more fundamentally, many of them are speaking about the issue as part of the corporatization of the university, the commodification of higher education, the loss of the post-secondary institution as a place of informed debate and open discussion.  And that is also appropriate.  Anger has being built up over a period of years, over the great rise in tuition fees (and the absolute lack of any concomitant resources put into teaching and learning), the great rise in compensation for vice-chancellors and the almost nonexistent salary improvement for academic staff, the rampant casualization of academic labour, and so forth.

But from my perspective as a medievalist the issue is really a deeper one.  The pension plan which was already altered significantly in 2014 (with effect in 2016) with its generous employer contributions (something around 17%) was to my way of thinking a legacy of the days when being an academic in a post-secondary institution was truly a lifelong commitment.  Retired members still supervised students, gave lectures, offered advice, served on some committees, turned out for all major celebratory events, and generally continued their involvement with the institution to which they had devoted their lives.  Some might indeed move away or retire elsewhere, or bop about the world, but the home college, the place of collegial and collegiate life, would always be there.  Hundreds of years ago a retiring fellow would simply close the doors of his (always “his”) rooms more often, and would expect to stay in those rooms up to and briefly after death.  Burial in the college cloisters would then take place, so that the fellow and tutor remained on site, albeit no longer to be consulted directly.  Admittedly, longevity was not advanced, and most fellows would die at what would today be well before retirement age (recollecting that Bismarck set a retirement age at which the German government expected the vast majority of the citizenry would be dead, and the shift in life expectancy has not sufficiently altered that age).  But the notion of a lifelong post as a lecturer and researcher in a university, a universitas, a guild of one’s fellows: that notion remains active, though perhaps not as consciously as it once was.

How does this really connect to the medieval university?

For me the connection is threefold.  First, the idea of a strong and continuing pension, a defined benefit pension which members of academic staff could count on for their old age, proffered a genuine reason to accept a lower salary, higher workload, and perhaps other complications of the UK university world.  It was a secure and settled option, and it offered academic staff the opportunity of paying no attention to this matter because it was settled and secure.  Peace of mind, and the time to focus on research and on teaching are in some ways priceless benefits.  The pension plan that was in place at UK universities was a very large piece of a social safety net.  Its inception must have been the strong duty of care for members that went back to the foundation of many colleges and universities before and just after the Black Death in Europe in the fourteenth century.  Although this particular incarnation of the pension plan dates only to 1974, when the pooled system established itself as a way to look after all academic staff in the UK (at 68 institutions but 350 employers), the idea inhered that institutions of higher education owed a duty of care through life and death to their academic staff, who settled in their jobs in their 20’s and remained in them until their 80’s or later, well after their working life was technically over at 65 or 67.

Second, the university remains for many a world of the “monkish ideal of contemplation.”  One of the most interesting things in the social media blitz going on is the extent to which individuals do not know that they are already well down the road towards a defined contribution pension scheme, and the current issue is more about how to rebalance the scheme so that the actuaries find the risk more tolerable, not about whether to be on this scheme on not.  So much printers’ ink, so many blogs and so very many lengthy conversations about the sellout of the university to the corporate world, and yet academic staff still, at a profoundly fundamental level, expect to be left alone to do their work.  Moreover, largely, they are.  Elements of control and bureaucratization are arriving, more every decade, but the basic system of teaching students, perhaps with PowerPoint rather than a lecture, and assessing student work and assigning grades at the end of the course or the year or the program: this remains remarkably the same.  The basic undergraduate degree has remained largely the same for many centuries, involving study for a few years to learn the basic elements and processes of a discipline, and taking examinations at the end of the course. So also does the system of doing research.  I have colleagues who have taught the same course on the same day of the week at the same time for their entire academic careers, and yet it does not seem to occur to them that this is a rare blessing.  Their lives have a pattern and a predictability that makes them rather like the medieval monks who taught Donatus at 7 a.m., perhaps making way for the friar who taught canon law at 10 a.m..

Still not convincing.  Is there a more tangible connection than this notion about how academics still live in an ivory tower and keep at this vocation to the last minute of their lives?

Well, my third and strongest connection is the role of Oxbridge, Oxford and Cambridge, in the brouhaha.  Some, though by no means all, of the colleges at these two universities have pretty deep pockets, having been in existence for more than eight hundred years.  They have been jittery about the pension fund before, and have contemplated ways to exit the scheme.  However, both universities (after some procedural fun and games, admittedly) reversed themselves, and Cambridge in particular has been establishing the high moral ground, with tweets and letters to the editor of The Times by its relatively new (and Canadian!) vice-chancellor.  In his letter to the editor, Stephen Toope argues: “reducing students to mere consumers makes sense only if the value of universities is simply economic. That would be a fundamental error. Universities have helped successive generations to achieve their potential in these places of breathtaking discovery and disruptive insight” (Letter to the Editor, The Times, published 16 March 2018).

The Oxford and Cambridge colleges are not wrong to feel concern about the “last man standing” provisions, since the principal concern of their governing bodies (which, unlike North American universities, include predominantly the academic fellows of the colleges) has to be the continued existence of the colleges.  There is no question but that the UCU and USS are taking advantage of Oxbridge, as their documents often refer to the Oxford and Cambridge colleges somewhat obliquely.  Take, for example, this point: “The deficit remains within the affordable means of the scheme’s 350-plus sponsoring employers – including the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country – to recover, over time.”  This reference to “the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country” is an obvious ploy to indicate that all will be well because there are deep pockets in the scheme.  Moreover, the distinction between the 68 universities and the reference here to 350 employers clearly cuts apart the colleges inside universities from the universities themselves.  In the early days of the strike action, much time was spent excoriating the fact that the employers expressing concern with the risk element including specific Oxbridge colleges, which were counted as if separate entities from the university.  And yet, the colleges are not directly involved in the whole strike, since the pension scheme is for all academic staff, through their university appointments.  It’s all a bit confusing, with Oxford and Cambridge being used both to allay fears about the future viability about the scheme, and to raise fears about whether the plan is sustainable.  The medieval universities cannot win in the modern media blitz.  Toope’s interventions, initially positive, faded to platitudes in a meeting with students who had been occupying his central administration building at Cambridge, and the scholars of Oxford and Cambridge are stepping forward to make strong arguments.  Compare, for example, Nicola Headlam, who is part of an Urban Transformations project funded through the School of Anthropology at Oxford. She is among the more indefatigable tweeters, and she argues in a tweet @networknicola on 7 March that: “[t]he debate on pensions is also a debate on restoring academic democracy, restoring academic community, restoring academic honour and restoring goodwill.”  The great medieval doctors of learning–Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, and Bonaventura–would all have approved entirely.

Any conclusions?

In his brilliant little book, The Rise of Universities, Charles Homer Haskins argues that in the Middle Ages the theologians and professors of canon law rose to bishoprics and appointments as cardinals, describing them as “all the great array of doctors angelic, invincible, irrefragable, seraphic, subtle, and universal” (68), and describing the medieval university as “the great age of professorial control” when “in a quite remarkable degree, the university was self-governing as well as self-respecting” (68-69).  (He has a few pointed remarks about boards of trustees and state intervention in universities in the present day of 1923.) Haskins’ strong views point to a deep and continuing tradition about the autonomy and centrality of the role of academic staff in the university today.  Despite all the changes and modernizations to the university, the fundamental interaction remains that of a teacher and a student learning together.  Anything that jeopardizes that interaction occasions extensive commentary and complaint.  Some might think that strikes are a modern invention as a way to re-establish a better balance of academic staff as decision-makers.  But, the first strike over university autonomy was at Paris in 1200, the second in 1229.  Striking at universities is a venerable tradition.

A note on my sources

The reference to the “monkish ideal of contemplation” comes from Ian Angus, Loves the Questions: University Education and Enlightenment (Winnipeg: ARP Books, 2009), p. 44.  Angus constructs a model of seven ideas of the university: the classical humanistic tradition, the modern research and teaching university, the public university, the multiversity, the democratic university (an ideal from the 60’s which inspired Angus), the corporate university and the network university (the emerging new form).  Readily available as a digitized book on the internet is the gem, Charles H. Haskins, The Rise of Universities (New York: Henry Holt, 1923); the lectures were originally given as the Colver Lectures at Brown University in 1923.  For background and information on the current issues in the United Kingdom I am particularly indebted to the queen of information, Alison Roberts, Curator for European and Early Prehistoric Collections in the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

By M.J. Toswell, University of Western Ontario, and author of Today’s Medieval University