Pension contributions set to rise as USS deficit hits £5 billion

Almost 200,000 staff working in UK higher education may soon be required to pay more into their pensions after the sector’s main scheme announced it has a deficit of just over £5 billion.

In a message to members published on 1 September, the Universities Superannuation Scheme said its latest triennial valuation had put its deficit at around £5 billion.

Based on these results, the USS will need to increase the contribution rate by 6-7 percentage points, from the current level of 26 per cent of members’ salaries, to cover the cost of future pension promises, the USS explained.

Employers now pay 18 per cent of an individual’s salary to the USS in pension contributions, while USS members pay 8 per cent under a revised scheme which came into effect in March 2016, which saw the end of accrual towards final salary pensions.

Any increase in pension contributions is likely to be split between universities and staff – meaning an effective pay cut for USS members – if the current benefits package were to be maintained in the future for active members.

About 184,000 university staff – mainly at pre-1992 universities – currently contribute towards a USS pension, as do another 6,500 non-university staff working in the higher education sector.

The pension’s trustee has now begun a consultation with universities about its assumptions and how the deficit, as well as the cost of funding future pension benefits, will be covered.

The consultation runs until 29 September – with decisions on any changes to future benefits or contributions levels set to follow later in the valuation process following further staff consultation.

In its message to members, the USS states that the “increase proposed is a significant challenge for our stakeholders, UUK and University and College Union (UCU) to address.”

However, the deficit of around £5 billion – which is roughly the same as the £5.3 billion deficit measured in March 2014 – is significantly lower than the £12.6 billion reported in the provider’s annual report in July. Using a second more conservative methodology, the annual report also estimated the shortfall could be as large as £17.5 billion.

The valuation’s deficit of £5 billion uses a different set of assumptions, which assume an average annual rate of return on assets equivalent to inflation plus 0.9 per cent over the next 20 years.

This would see the USS grow its assets by £30 billion over the next 20 years, up from their current value of £60 billion, the USS said.

John Ralfe, an independent pensions adviser, said changes to the USS were now inevitable.

“One way or another USS benefits for active members will become less generous, member contributions will go up and university contributions will also go up,” he said.

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