Skip to main contentCambridge University Reporter

No 6507

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Vol cxlviii No 31

pp. 577–622

Report of Discussion: 15 May 2018

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

A Discussion was held in the Senate-House. Deputy Vice‑Chancellor Dame Carol Black was presiding, with the Registrary’s deputy, the Senior Proctor, the Junior Pro‑Proctor, and six other persons present.

The following Report was discussed:

Report of the Council, dated 1 May 2018, pursuant to Special Ordinance A (i) 7(b) concerning an initiated Grace relating to the University and the Universities Superannuation Scheme

(Reporter, 6504, 2017–18, p. 539).

Dr M. J. Rutter (Department of Physics and President of Cambridge UCU):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor,

Council acknowledges that the retirement benefits offered by USS, and in particular those offered under a Defined Benefit scheme, are highly valued by USS members within the University.

Thus reads the Report that we are discussing today, and it is pleasing that Council has arrived at this realization, no doubt assisted by the unprecedented number of signatures on the initiated Grace.

It is also pleasing to read in Council’s Grace such a clear public statement of acceptance of the level of risk in the September 2017 USS valuation. I hope that this assists in moving the Trustee back to an acceptance of that valuation, which would greatly assist both sides in this dispute.

Pensions are a highly important and valued part of the pay and reward package offered by this University. They form an important part of the University’s ability to recruit and retain staff. The changes to the USS proposed in January were not simply highly damaging in themselves, but the University’s response on 24 January 2018, stating that

the University understands that many members of USS will be concerned about these proposed changes and it is committed to communicating regularly with affected staff,1

failed to suggest that the University was at all opposed to the proposed change, or that it really understood the consequences for its staff.

The University’s letter to staff immediately before the strike was not in the least conciliatory, and the first public hint that the University had any concern about the impact of the proposed changes came on 21 February when the Vice-Chancellor wrote that the University was exploring ‘options that could help reduce the impact of the changes proposed’. Only after industrial action had started did this position move to calling for an immediate resumption of talks between Universities UK and the University and College Union (UCU). After a few more weeks, there was even public criticism of UUK’s position: ‘we should remove the inflationary cap included in the recently rejected agreement’ wrote the Vice-Chancellor in reference to the ACAS agreement of 12 March.

Cambridge too often relies on the power of its name to attract staff, and seems to believe that it is fair and sustainable for it to be an academically-leading University in an expensive city without offering a pay and reward package which is similarly leading. It is not.

The Grace as proposed by Council has a paragraph, (v)(b), proposing a Report, by the end of the next academical year, on

alternative means of maintaining, in the longer term, the total remuneration and retirement package of the Universityʼs USS members, in the event that the benefits that can be delivered through such negotiations are materially less than those currently available to those members.

This is neither good, nor good enough.

It is not good because a hint of an alternative retirement package suggests a Cambridge withdrawal from the USS, or, more probably, a local top-up scheme to run in addition to the USS. We already have a two-tier system of pensions in UK Universities, and a move to something yet more disparate would not be welcome. We hope that this suggestion is proposed in the spirit not of being a desired outcome, but a potential least bad outcome should the national outcome be very poor. Perhaps, optimistically, one might consider that many UUK institutions would be at least as unhappy with this outcome as I would be, and that this threat might assist the negotiations.

But there is also a timing issue. We assume that some new pensions arrangements will be in place by April 2019, or a small number of months thereafter. It would seem unlikely that the Trustee or the Regulator would accept any other timescale. To have a Report by the end of September 2019, which will then need to be considered by Council, discussed in this House, and Graced before it can have any effect, may leave a long period of poor pension provision. This would be very damaging for staff retention, morale, and trust. The University took too long to respond appropriately to the January Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) decision, and next time it needs to be fleeter of foot.

In twelve months’ time we do not wish to hear staff being told that their pensions situation is similar to that of Alice’s proposed employment in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: ‘the rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.’

Alice was reduced to saying ‘I don’t understand you, it’s dreadfully confusing!’ The words ‘dreadfully confusing’ I hear too often in respect of the USS. And those of us who were paying into a final salary scheme a few years ago, and were surprised to discover what ‘final salary’ meant, are already familiar with Humpty Dumpty: ‘when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.’

I therefore echo paragraphs (v)(a) and (vi), asking that the University press firmly, strongly, and publicly, for a stable, guaranteed, trusted, pension scheme for its staff, with no hiatus. Staff in the post-92 universities enjoy this, and further moves here towards a Looking Glass scheme cannot be the fair settlement sought by paragraph (vi) of Council’s Grace.

Like the January JNC decision, the 12 March ACAS agreement contained jaws that bite, and clauses that catch. Carroll’s Jabberwocky teaches us to beware of such creatures, and how to meet them. The UCU will be prepared should this beast return. Will Council stand with us next time?

Mr D. J. Goode (Faculty of Divinity and Wolfson College):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am speaking today in a personal capacity, as a member of the Regent House.

I’m afraid the first part of my remarks is going to be quite dry and technical, but please bear with me for I believe there is an important principle at stake.

Statute A VIII (c) (as amended)1 is clear that:

All Graces submitted require the authorization of the Council; the Council may withhold that authorization in circumstances prescribed by Special Ordinance

Special Ordinance A (i) 5 allows a Grace to be initiated by members of the Regent House, and says:

Any fifty members of the Regent House may initiate a Grace for submission to the Regent House, and any twenty-five members may initiate a proposal for the amendment of a Grace already submitted to the Regent House but not yet approved.

Special Ordinance A (i) 7(a) sets out the Council’s two possible courses of action in the event of it receiving an initiated Grace:

Subject to the exercise by the Vice-Chancellor of the powers conferred by Section 6 or by Ordinances made under that Section, the Council shall consider any Grace or amendment initiated under Section 5, and either (i) shall authorize the submission of the Grace or amendment to the Regent House or (ii) shall publish a Report giving reasons for its decision to withhold authorization and recommending the Regent House to approve that decision. If such approval is not given, the Council shall, not later than the end of the term next following, submit the Grace or amendment to the Regent House.

Section 6 referred to above allows the Vice-Chancellor to rule a Grace inadmissible in certain circumstances:

In respect of Graces and amendments of Graces initiated under Section 5, the Vice-Chancellor shall have power to rule inadmissible any Grace or amendment which directly concerns a particular person, and shall have such further powers as may be specified by Ordinance.

The initiated Grace does not concern a particular person, so the Vice-Chancellor does not have the power to rule it inadmissible.

As we saw above, the Council may choose not to authorize a Grace, but in that case it must publish a Report giving its reasons, and ask the Regent House to approve that decision. In the case of this initiated Grace, that was not done. Rather, in this case the Council has effectively submitted to the Regent House an amended version of a Grace initiated by members of the Regent House.

Amendments to Graces are possible, of course. Chapter I of Ordinances sets out the mechanism for amending a Grace. I will spare you the entire paragraph for it is quite long, but the pertinent part is the opening clause, which sets out clearly who may amend a Grace:

A written proposal for the amendment of a Grace which has been submitted to the Regent House may be initiated by members of the Regent House in accordance with Special Ordinance A (i) 5... .

The Regent House has the power to amend a Grace; the Council does not.

I therefore contend that, in refusing to authorize a Grace initiated de jure by members of the Regent House and submitting instead to the Regent House on 2 May 2018 its de facto amended version of that Grace, the Council has exceeded its powers.

It might be that in this instance the Council has done the right thing the wrong way, for our Statutes and Ordinances are presently unable to accommodate the Council’s desire to amend an initiated Grace to which it is otherwise broadly sympathetic. But as a matter of principle the Council must not be allowed to receive a Grace initiated by members of the Regent House, refuse to authorize its submission, amend the bits it doesn’t like, and then use its power to submit the amended Grace for the approval of the Regent House.

There is danger here in setting a precedent. If the Regent House allows the Council to exceed its powers today for a (more or less) honourable reason, what is to stop the Council doing so in the future for less honourable reasons?

This concerns me, which is why I should like the Vice‑Chancellor to take this as a representation under Statute A IX 1(a) that there has been a breach of compliance with the Statutes and Ordinances by the Council in its Report to the Regent House of 1 May 2018 and subsequent submission of a Grace on 2 May 2018.