Professor Anne Trefethen: new HR guidance & USS pension update

This week, Oxford has been in the news around the globe. I’ve had messages from friends far afield excited by the progress that our colleagues in Medical Sciences have made in their pursuit of a vaccine. It gives us all hope. (The latest vaccine news story is available on our website)

At the same time, I’ve been in various committee meetings – the HR Steering Group, the Michaelmas Coordination Group and the Silver Group, all discussing the arrangements, constraints and actions needed as we plan for Michaelmas term and beyond. It is good to see those plans move steadily on. We now have close to half the University’s buildings open and hundreds of colleagues are returning to work on-site. Over the summer, all the remaining buildings will open and be prepared as the collegiate University organises for the return of students for the beginning of the new term.

For some of us, the daily trip into the office is still something for a rather distant future but I hope most of us will find a balance that includes working in-person with colleagues in Oxford and working from home. Until we have the vaccine in place, there will be some colleagues for whom in-person working may not be an option, such as those who are clinically vulnerable, live with a family member who is clinically vulnerable, or who have full-time caring responsibilities. There are others who are feeling anxious and concerned about the risks. I’ve been working with colleagues in HR who have developed a framework of guidance and support to help individuals with this transition, to assess risks and,where appropriate,to put in place adjustments to their normal working arrangements. Details have been shared with departments to ensure managers and supervisors have the guidance they need to support their colleagues. Further details can be found on the COVID HR webpages.

In my last blog, I mentioned that discussions on the USS pension scheme were continuing and on 8 July we received the latest in a series of several consultations. This particular issue is a technical one but if you are interested in the details, they can be found on the Pensions website. We are fortunate that members of the University USS Pension Working Group were also members of the working group with UUK and UCU to consider the issues that have led to the consultation and so are well placed to advise the University on it. The University response to the consultation will be returned on 3 August 2020 and will as usual be published on the Pensions website for colleagues to see.

It is very good to see that the parties involved in the valuation and development of the scheme, namely USS, UUK and UCU have been working closely together following the JEP2 recommendations. They have adopted a shared set of principles – including to ‘work together co-operatively to complete the valuation successfully’ with ‘respect for the responsibilities of the different parties in the valuation’. While these working relationships have improved however, the financial environment within which they are working has deteriorated. Concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on the long-term prospects for the Higher Education sector, together with the likely adverse effects on the global economy, are adding to the challenges.

USS has published a monthly dashboard to indicate the health of the scheme. This unfortunately shows a continuing substantial increase in the size of the deficit of the scheme: the 2018 valuation indicated a £3.8bn deficit; in April this year that had increased to £15.2bn; by the end of June it has increased further to £20.2bn. There is more information on the dashboard and, of course, a number of other factors that will need to be considered in determining the future of the scheme, but this worsening of the deficit is a strong indicator that we are going to have significant challenges to meet.

We expect a more significant consultation to start in early August and continue through September; it will consider the application of the JEP2 report recommendations to the 2020 valuation. The contributions required to fund the current benefit structure will be confirmed after that consultation towards the end of the year. As we get into September, we will hold a webinar and there will be other communications to keep colleagues informed on the progress of the consultations and valuation.

For most of us this August will be rather different than others we have had. I do hope you are able to take a break and recharge.