Summary of Meeting with USS (January 2021)

Below is a summary of the meeting between USS and Ethics4USS held on January 21st. This meeting was primarily to discuss the results of a survey of members conducted by Maastricht University in October 2020. The survey showed strong support for sustainable investment from members – with many respondents happy to have smaller financial returns as a consequence. Another striking result of the survey was that many members in the DC part of the scheme who can chose to put their contributions into ethical funds were either unaware of this option or unsure if they had made this choice or not.

Here is the meeting summary:

Summary of Meeting between USS and Ethics4USS/DivestUSS January 21st 2021

Present:

USS                  Daniel Summerfield, Head Corporate Affairs

David Russell, Head Responsible Investment

Naomi Clark, Head Investment Product Management

Dean Blower, Head Strategy and Insights

Ethics4USS      Ceri Sullivan, Cardiff University

                        Charlotte Rae, University of Sussex

                        Emily Heath, University of Lancaster

                        Glen Consquer, University of Edinburgh

                        Kat Thorne, Kings College London

                        Paul Kinnersley, Cardiff University (retired)

Maastrict University   Katrin Godker, Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Finance

Introductions: All introduced themselves and Ethics4USS thanked USS for continuing these meetings.

The Survey on Ethical Investing conducted by Maastrict University

USS introduced the survey – USS were particularly interested in why take up of Investment Builder ethical funds had been lower than expected since 2015; they wanted to explore options rather than just excluding classes of assets when developing new products; and they wanted to explore different forms of choice architecture used to offer ethical funds.

Katrin then gave a report on the conduct and initial results of this survey.  The survey was designed by a team at Maastrict who are particularly interested in how people’s views on ‘Sustainable Investing’ align with their actual behaviours.

The survey was sent out to active members in October and there were no reminders or repeat mailing shots.

Around 4000 members responded – approximately 2% of total members and a similar response rate to previous surveys – the respondents were similar in age, gender proportions to that of the overall population of active USS members though their incomes were slightly higher. 

Amongst respondents there was strong support for ‘Sustainable Investment’ even if this meant that funds performed less well than alternatives – over half thought that sustainability should be taken fully into account even if this affected their pension and a further fifth thought it should be ‘mostly’ taken into account.  This view was strongest amongst young, female, academic and less well-paid members. Respondents were generally altruistic, future oriented and not risk adverse. 

Regarding awareness of ethical options within the DC scheme, about half of respondents were in the DC section of the scheme, but only 58% were aware of the option to invest in ethical funds.   Moreover 42% did not know whether they had taken up an ethical option or not. There were good levels of satisfaction with the Ethical Fund option from those respondents who had made this choice.

Regarding excluding specific categories of investment being excluded from the USS portfolio there was limited time for discussion but there were clear messages that majorities of members supported divestment from tobacco, fossil fuels, companies that abuse human rights and other criteria measured in the survey.

Discussion

  • Ethics4USS (E4U) asked about the survey’s definition of ‘the future’ – it should have been clear that members may have concerns for future generations. USS agreed to take this discussion further with Glen.
  • Ethics4USS thought the survey response rate was lowered by members’ workload during the Covid pandemic.
  • E4U thought the advertising of the survey was limited. Katrin explained the need to avoid survey bias and USS explained the need to balance surveys with other important engagement messages.
  • Ethics4USS asked about when the survey results would be published.  Katrin said that the academic research behind the survey results was likely to be published publicly in 2021, and offered to share with Ethics4USS Maastrict’s report for USS, later this year.
  • Ethics4USS thought the DC figures (re. 1. awareness of the option of ethical funds and 2. whether or not one had selected them) suggested an opportunity for USS to increase knowledge of and investment in them, hence increasing member satisfaction. Importantly, the data also demonstrated there was a wider appetite for such funds, including among DB members, who cannot opt into the ethical funds.
  • Ethics4USS argued that since members’ views on ESG investing are changing fast, USS needs regular surveys of active, deferred, and retired members on this. USS agreed, but said that the 2021 annual survey of members did not include such questions. Ethics4USS thought all such surveys should do so in order to understand members’ responses to the rapidly changing ESG landscape. Also this may increase member engagement and satisfaction.
  • Ethics4USS argued that the results should enable USS to move towards more ethical investing and to divest from certain groups of investments. USS said the trustees’ fiduciary responsibilities limited the application of non-financial factors (member views) to investment decisions. Note: the relevant USS policy is outlined in the scheme’s statement of investment principles – paragraph 1.4.7

.

  • E4U argued that restricting the option of ethical investment to the DC section contravened EDI, since lower earners were more likely to be young, female and less likely to be white. USS said that investment choice was not allowable where DB benefits were being accrued and that the single hybrid structure of the scheme (DB/DC split, with a salary cap of £59k before members started accruing standard benefits in the DC section) is not the remit of the USS Trustees but of the Joint Negotiating Committee, of which UCU and UUK form.
  • E4U asked for details of divestment plans to be shared with university sustainability committees. USS agreed to have a separate conversation regarding this with Kat.
  • E4U asked what the Trustees had decided to do, in response to the survey. USS said they were still considering the results, but changes to communication with the DC members was one likely action, as well as considering how the ethical options could be developed further.

On behalf of E4U, Paul thanked USS and Katrin for a very helpful meeting, and that we looked forward to meeting again in approximately 3 months’ time.

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