Call for greater flexibility on retirement

September 15, 2011

Universities must stop using retirement age as a crude performance management tool as they face up to changing life cycles and the end of the default retirement age of 65.

The argument was made by Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, at a debate on "the changing landscape of work in higher education" on 12 September. Speaking at the Institute of Ideas/UCL event, Professor Grant said many academics wanted to continue working past 65 - and even more expected they would have to.

The Australian approach of pre-retirement contracts, where employees receive enhanced benefits in return for agreeing to retire at a certain age, was one useful method for enabling both employers and employees to plan ahead, he added.

Ed Howker, co-author of Jilted Generation: How Britain has Bankrupted its Youth, noted that shortages of jobs and housing for those under 30 meant that "the teenage transition from childhood to adulthood has got longer". Universities could play an important role as "models for relations between the old and the young", he said, but complained that the decision by the University of London to remove wardens from halls of residence had sent the wrong message.

David Gems, assistant director of the Institute of Healthy Ageing at UCL, reported on research indicating that the process of "ageing is plastic - one can intervene in it". While "current institutions were designed for people with short life spans", he regarded compulsory retirement as "an obscenity", arguing that "academics should be allowed to work as long as they are capable".

But Dr Gems acknowledged the need to prevent "stagnation" and bottlenecks within academic employment. Today's weeding process in academia meant that only a small proportion of postgraduates secured permanent posts in universities. A similar "new quasi-tenure system based on merit" might be needed for those who reach the age of 65, he said.

The experience of Australia and the US, said Gill Samuels, an age equality champion at UCL, showed that "societies don't collapse because they don't have a set retirement age ... diversity within teams creates greater collective intelligence".

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