Better pensions cost money

September 4, 1998

Alastair McDougall could be accused of proposing the wrong solution to the wrong problem at the wrong time.

If there is genuine concern about the stress levels of university staff these should be tackled by preventive measures: workload reduction, workload management, healthy working practices and so on.

As in the mining industry, early retirement is not a solution to work-related illnesses, the damage has been done already. Indeed truncated academic careers could encourage even heavier workloads as a means of maximising the use of staff energy before early exit.

If the main concern is lack of "dynamism" in the academic workforce then there is a wide range of creative ways in which change can be encouraged: sabbatical leave, staff exchanges, training, partial retirement schemes.

There seems to be an assumption behind the article that older academic staff are less effective or dynamic than younger ones. If there is evidence to support this assumption it should be presented, otherwise it could be criticised as age discriminatory. The widespread use of early retirement/redundancy packages in higher education for people in their 50s is proof of nothing except the availability of funding.

How much longer can universities ignore the reality of workforce ageing? Adjustment to this fact of life in an ageing society should give rise to creative thinking about how the fundamental human capital on which universities depend can be sustained over a longer, not shorter, age range (though not necessarily in continuous, single career employment). Financial crises and outdated employment strategies have prevented debate on this crucial issue. Yet many leading private-sector companies recognised the implications of this demographic change years ago and have adjusted their human resources policies accordingly. For its part the government is preparing a code of practice on the employment of older workers. Time for higher education to take notice?

Alan Walker

Professor of social policy Department of sociologicalstudies

University of Sheffield

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