ACADEMICS are retiring in droves while student numbers are rising, it emerged this week.
Latest figures from the Higher Education Statistical Agency show the number of posts falling vacant as a result of retirements between 1994-95 and 1996-97 grew by more than 200 per cent.
Retirements recorded by the Universities Superannuation Scheme rose by more than 60 per cent in the same three years and, while the trend is slowing, they are predicted to go up by another 12 per cent this year. According to HESA, academics doing at least 25 per cent of a full-time job retired from 2,285 posts last year compared with 1,294 in 1995-96 and just 723 the previous year.
The mass exodus has been caused by a mixture of cost-cutting, changes to pension arrangements and demographics. The figures show more than 4,500 academics at or above the average university retirement age of 61.
The subject with the highest proportion of older academics is physics, where nearly 30 per cent are 55 or over and less than 20 per cent under 35. In chemistry 28 per cent of academics are at least 55.
Not all of those who go will be replaced, and many of the replacements are likely to be contract staff. Early retirements have become an increasingly popular way of saving money on salaries.
Last year saw a spate of staff from new universities leaving on early retirement schemes to beat changes to the Teachers Superannuation Scheme, which mean employers rather than the scheme must now meet the costs of staff going early.
With the spate of retirements and government policies meaning up to 35,000 more students coming into higher education by 2002, recruitment is expected to be buoyant.
Peter Humphreys, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said retirements could give institutions the flexibility to cut costs, while offering more opportunities to younger staff.
He said: "Universities are part of a national trend where people don't necessarily retire but tend to work part-time or on a portfolio of activities and have two or more sources of income. Outside one or two distinctive areas such as information technology there has been no evidence of difficulty over recruitment."
Bill Trythall, Association of University Teachers-appointed director of the USS, said: "We are beginning to move into a bulge demographically in full-time posts in the profession." He said this was the generation which graduated in the early 1960s, who benefitted from university expansion after the 1963 Robbins report.
But while retirements are rising, so is USS membership, suggesting that recruitment is keeping up.
A spokesman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said:
"Universities are not reporting any major difficulties in recruiting new staff or promoting staff to fill vacancies as a consequence of these retirement figures. Of course we would seek to monitor the issue if our members expressed concerns."