Experience counts for little if the years are stacking up

November 22, 2002

Despite warnings of a staff-recruitment crisis, universities continue to dump 'dynamic, innovative' academics for the heinous 'crime' of turning 65. Helen Hague reports

Despite all the talk about employees' rights, discrimination on the grounds of age is not illegal in the UK unless it can be shown to be linked to sex discrimination. But this will change in four years when a fresh tranche of employment legislation, yet to be formulated and driven by the European directive on equal treatment in employment, comes into force. Combating ageism has not, to date, been a government priority. The Department of Trade and Industry has an Age Discrimination Unit, which three years ago issued a voluntary code of practice promoting the business benefits of an age-diverse workforce. Voluntary codes, however, are easily ignored. Galvanised by Europe, proposals on the new employment legislation will be put out to consultation next year and published in 2004 to give employers time to prepare for change. It is complex terrain.

The campaign to scrap compulsory retirement is already under way. Hillel Ticktin, 65, who retired reluctantly as professor of Marxist studies at the University of Glasgow two months ago, argues that any good lecturer of 65 will have the experience, knowledge and training to make them invaluable members of their department. Many are more vital, dynamic and innovative than lecturers in their 20s. Why lose that expertise? They don't in the US. But UK unions, which for years fought to reduce the retirement age, have not been quick to sign up to the cause, understandably wary of how voluntary flexibility could become compulsory. In universities, the dip in PhD students is a warning signal that the sector could face recruitment problems, leading to the kind of teacher shortage bedevilling schools and colleges. Maybe encouraging or compelling academics to stay on beyond 65 could help to solve the problem.

When many government ministers were at university in the early 1970s, there were nine students for every academic staff member. Now there are 18, and this number is set to rise to 23 by 2010 - when the government hopes to get 50 per cent of young people into higher education. Lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers have yet to form a policy on the forthcoming legislation, but Natfhe has set up a working party to consider legislative change. It is still to meet, but Elizabeth Lawrence, a sociologist from Sheffield Hallam University, who sits on the working party and the union's ruling executive, believes those who focus the debate on letting academics work longer risk missing the point. As academic life becomes more pressured, the intake more diverse and teaching more challenging, she believes the union's "starting point should be 'how do we make the job fit for people up to the age of 65 rather than feeling they've got to get out earlier to save health and sanity'".

She adds: "We don't want people forced out early, but we also don't want them to lose the right to retire. Our aim is to maintain and improve conditions for members."

Lawrence, a seasoned union activist, is alert to lurking dangers. "In times of financial stringency, the employer agenda can turn to levelling down. If, for instance, redundancy payments linked to length of service are seen to discriminate against younger people - older workers would lose out and younger workers gain nothing." This threat, so far, is hypothetical. With increasing workloads, bureaucracy and endemic low pay, many academics may not want to stick around, she adds.

But at a time when there are 2,000 academic and support-staff redundancies in the pipeline, "older academics can be very worried about being turfed out of their jobs prematurely", says Jane McAdoo, president of the AUT. They feel they may be targeted for redundancy because the joint union/Universities Superannuation Scheme allows for retirement from 50. But if the retirement age is raised or scrapped, academics could feel obliged to carry on working.

The debate on scrapping the compulsory retirement age exposes tensions between traditional union agendas and the right to carry on working. It also brings up complex arguments over issues such as choice, pension rights, tax and the conflicting needs of younger and older members in a profession and union membership profile that is skewed towards the middle-aged.

If the unions find the issues difficult, so too do the big employers, among them the universities, who stabilise their salary bills by planning ahead. University department heads plot the known retirement ages of long-standing staff on grids - shifting resources from areas where student numbers are dwindling to those where demand for places is buoyant. The salaries of those retiring at the top of their pay scales can be redirected to employ younger, cheaper academics. One argument being muttered by university managements is that if institutions are compelled to pay senior staff for longer, they will be less able to take on young academics intent on building their careers.

The Equality Challenge Unit, the body charged with ensuring that universities deliver on their equal opportunity policies is in favour of removing all discrimination, including age discrimination. But director Joyce Hill says: "We also realise there are thorny issues that are raised by age." These include retirement and pensions, common to all employers. She adds: "There are also ones specific to higher education. These include age limits on awards and fellowships and the disadvantage those with career breaks and those who enter academia at an older age may suffer because their academic age, within which they could have accumulated research, is less than their apparent age. This could put them at a disadvantage if it is not taken into account." The unit is consulting with the government on these issues.

Malcolm Sargeant, reader in employment law at Middlesex University, thinks the UK will opt for a flexible approach to the European Union directive, rather than scrapping the compulsory retirement age. He believes there is a strong argument for legislative change, saying it will do away with practices such as employers making staff who are five years off retirement redundant on the excuse that they can't expect to be trained or employed. "It certainly ought to be unlawful to say to someone 'you are 40/50/60 and therefore unemployable'," he says.

Why waste the talent?
Dave Toke, a 50-year-old research fellow at Birmingham University, is a new entrant to academe and is fired up to make a career in the profession. The fact that Routledge plans to publish his book on the politics of genetically modified food should probably help his prospects.

Toke took a first degree in politics, worked as a journalist and then as a teacher, and did an MA at Birmingham in the mid-1980s. He did a stint at the Open University and now works at Birmingham's department of political science. It is a working environment that he says is free of ageism.

"They seem to recognise that people like me are likely to be highly focused and seriously effective - and can even help boost the department's research profile," he says.

With backing from his department, he has secured funding for a three-year research project exploring planning issues associated with wind power.

Toke, who is fed up with reading articles that portray people in their 50s as thinking of little but their pensions, would like to see "all consideration of age in recruitment erased. Period."

When it comes to applying for jobs, departments that are not forward-thinking are more likely to choose a younger candidate, he says. "It's often a great waste of talent. Why shouldn't people be able to work for as long as they want if they are productive."

He believes the pressure to treat older workers fairly will gain momentum as the 50-plus age group makes up a growing sector of the population. "There may still be resistance, but anybody who takes a long view should realise resistance is futile," he says.

Dave Toke is hosting a debate on ageism at: www.thes.co.uk/commonroom

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