Lessons from the Universities Superannuation Scheme Debacle

The Universities Superannuation Scheme, commonly referred to as the USS, is the retirement pension for UK academics employed in pre-1992 universities. Full disclosure: I am a member of this pension scheme. Although I currently live in Australia and therefore no longer pay into it, I spent several years in UK higher ed contributing to the USS.

Since I started as a lecturer at the University of Manchester several years back, the USS has always been “under threat,” whatever that means. Initially conceived as a defined benefit scheme, it was at first quite generous. But over the years, it evolved into a far less generous defined contribution scheme.

UK universities have long argued that the USS is unaffordable, pointing to sizable deficits in the scheme. Their “solution” has been to erode the benefits and to call for greater employee contributions to ensure its sustainability.

The University and College Union, commonly referred to as the UCU, has repeatedly gone out on strike over the last couple decades to “fight” for our pensions in the face of the employer onslaught.

Three days ago, the USS dramatically and unilaterally slashed our pension. So much for the UCU fight.

I still have yet to see the details of how, exactly, the changes will affect me, but preliminary reports from others suggest that the cuts are deep and devastating.

The response among UK academics has been predictable. The UCU has vowed to continue its heretofore impotent “fight.” Academics have taken to social media to vent their anger and shock. Many are threatening to leave academia altogether.

There is an important and profound lesson here. It may not be one you want to learn, but learn it you will. It is, quite simply, this: you must look after yourself, because no one else will. Do not count on your private pension. Do not count on your state pension. Do not count on your union.

“You must look after yourself, because no one else will. Do not count on your private pension. Do not count on your state pension. Do not count on your union.”

You need to be setting aside a portion of your income now to invest in your future.

Pension schemes aren’t much different from Ponzi schemes. People are living longer and having far fewer children. It doesn’t take a genius to see where things are heading. No one is going to take care of you; you will have to take care of yourself.

What does this mean? All academics should have a “side gig” to create a new revenue stream. You need to learn how to wisely invest your money. You should curtail your present spending based on the expectation that you will have no pension.

My point is that you need to stop placing your fate in the hands of others. We place our trust in “systems” and “institutions” that have done nothing to deserve our trust. Your future is in your hands and yours alone.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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