Pay and conditions: benefits workshop

Head and shoulders shot of Rupert McNeil

Rupert McNeil is an external member of the Pay & Conditions Steering Committee. He has been working in the areas of labour market, workforce and people strategy since graduating from Oxford in 1989.  Following a career in remuneration consulting at Arthur Andersen and Deloitte, he spent ten years in HR director roles in financial services before becoming the first UK government Chief People Officer in 2016. Having stepped down in 2022, he is now chairman of a lithium-ion battery recycling business and a human resources consultancy and a trustee and chairman of the People Committee of a multi-academy trust. 

The committee’s third workshop, on 9 October, was a deep dive into employee benefits. Background reading ahead of the workshop gave us a good opportunity to understand benefit trends both in higher education and in other sectors. Looking at this, and at the unique aspects of working at Oxford, our discussion covered a lot of ground. 

The cost of Oxford 

Oxford is expensive for those who work here. Housing is expensive relative to most other parts of the UK, outside of London, and additional pressures come from transport and other living costs. This was true even before current pressures on the cost of living in the wider economy. It points to the importance of employee benefits that enable staff to have more disposable income in their pockets. In the short term that means looking at areas where the University can offer subsidies from economies of scale, whether through discounts, good value food options or additional support in areas like travel and childcare. In the longer term, it means taking a strategic approach to addressing the high costs of housing. The significant investment the University is already making in affordable accommodation (for example at Begbroke) will have a critical role to play, but the committee is looking at a range of different approaches. 

Pensions: a very valuable part of the package 

No discussion of reward can ignore the largest single benefit most employers offer: the pension. The national USS Pension Scheme is the principal pension scheme for Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) in the UK. Therefore, making changes to the scheme would require coordination beyond just the University and its colleges, given most UK HEIs are also a part of the pension. There is currently an active consultation underway for the USS scheme. 

In general, as the Universities and Colleges Employers Association 2022 ‘Benefits of working in HE’ report highlighted, the defined benefit pension schemes offered by 98% of UK HE institutions, which guarantee a level of pension in retirement, contrast with the 99% of UK private sector employers who offer new joiners defined contribution pensions (where the level of pension at retirement is not guaranteed). The pension offering is financially very valuable as part of the University’s overall benefits offering; but for the purposes of this review, pensions have the characteristics of water locked in a glacier: a lot of value (and cost) which cannot be easily or immediately accessed by colleagues. 

Flexibility, consistency and finding what people really need (and value) 

Underpinning all of this is the theme of flexibility: people have different needs at different times and stages of life. It’s clear that flexibility is particularly valued in areas like flexible working hours, the ability to work from home and opportunities for parental leave. Complexities can also be found here. One example is the challenge in balancing flexibility and consistency (and therefore fairness), because not all roles can be performed from home equally. It has been useful reading some of the feedback from staff, outside of the workshop discussions, about how flexible working is currently applied in different parts of the University. 

Hidden value and practicalities 

There are practical considerations too. Some benefits have roles in the University eco-system that may not be visible through a simplistic ‘value for money’ lens. For example, common dining areas in University buildings lubricate the relationships and interactions that are so important for creative and effective academic work, and having more time flexibility on paper may not have practical value if someone feels that they can’t use it because of their workload.  

Where we got to 

This workshop reinforced the importance of looking strategically and realistically at those employee benefits and benefits choices that will represent the most meaningful value. It reinforced the importance of thinking about the needs of staff with different career paths and at different stages of their careers, including about colleagues joining Oxford from outside the UK who face extra visa and healthcare surcharge costs. We agreed that more data on the use of existing benefits should be gathered, to help establish what is valued and where the offer might need to be extended. Of course, some benefits might not be widely used but might still be of value to the staff who do use them, but data helps to build the picture. 

As with all Steering Committee discussions I’ve been in, this one was focused, informed by the feedback we have been receiving from staff across the University, and it showed firm resolution to get to get to grips with complex issues and identify areas where improvements might be made.