Departure of Covid expert spotlights Asian retirement rules

Critics says that 60, or even 65, is too young to end an academic career

October 19, 2020
An elderly man rests his foot on a railing as he fishes in the waters of Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong
Source: Getty

As the leading anglophone higher education systems have pushed back or abolished mandatory retirement ages in recent decades, the practice has remained relatively entrenched in Asia.

Mainland China, for example, has a retirement policy based on gender: men retire at 60, women at 55. Guidelines produced by India’s University Grants Commission call for a retirement age of 65, but some state institutions have retirement ages as low as late fifties or 60.

The practice has been thrown into the spotlight afresh in Hong Kong by the news that Keiji Fukuda, a former World Health Organisation (WHO) official and a top government adviser on Covid-19, would next year step down as the director of the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) School of Public Health.

His age, 65, already puts him past the official retirement age of 60, which is used at HKU and three of the city’s other public institutions. While there are sometimes extensions, academics are required to negotiate new contracts, often on less generous terms. The city’s other main universities have a retirement age of 65, although the change from 60 was relatively recent.

HKU said that “professors who are reappointed after the retirement age, especially after the age of 65, are rare cases who display exceptionally high levels of academic achievements”.

But experts have questioned the decision to dispense with the services of an expert on infectious diseases, who led WHO teams to Saudi Arabia in 2013 and South Korea during outbreaks of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), in the midst of a global pandemic.

One HKU academic, who asked not to be named, told Times Higher Education of Professor Fukuda: “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. He’s a world-leading figure in infectious disease. Who cares if he’s 65? If he can’t keep his job, then what hope is there for the rest of us?”

Hong Kong universities have faced allegations that they were using mandatory retirement policies to make space for younger scholars who may have greater future potential for fundraising or citations. 

But Terry Au, HKU vice-president and pro vice-chancellor (academic staffing and resources), told THE that that was not the case.

“Young academics are not recruited to bring up citations or rankings,” she said. “In reality, senior academics usually have more citations due to career-wise cumulative effect. We recruit promising young talent and nurture them for the future of our university.”

Professor Au highlighted that some university systems in mainland Europe, as well as in Asia, maintained mandatory retirement ages and said that HKU had recruited leading academics in their fifties in recent years.

It is not the first time that such policies have provoked controversy: retirement age was cited as the reason that Peking University president Lin Jianhua, then aged 63, was replaced with a Communist Party secretary in 2018. 

But concerns have been raised that the approach could be deterring senior academics from coming to or staying in the region.

Paul Stapleton, former associate dean of the Graduate School at the Education University of Hong Kong, said that he left this post a year after his salary was cut at age 62. 

He explained that the retirement age was 65 only for full professors, but not for associate professors like himself, despite the fact that he was also a department head.

Dr Stapleton is now back in Canada. Several years earlier, one of his former colleagues also left the institution, at the age of 59, and is now in Australia.

“It’s a very competitive field,” Dr Stapleton told THE. “In Hong Kong’s case, there are both socio-political troubles, but also the retirement age, which will make it difficult to recruit internationally.”

Dr Stapleton added: “Look at Nobel laureates. You can see that they are not young, and they are very prolific in terms of publications and advancing knowledge.”

One problem is that in Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia, age discrimination in the workplace is not illegal.

Gina Marchetti, a gender studies expert at HKU, told THE that the university was an “outlier” because it had a US-style tenure system, but without job security for tenured professors after 60.

“People do not want to get to the top of their professions in their fifties, and then have renegotiate their contracts before 60,” she said.

Professor Marchetti said that the retirement age was a tool used by administrators “to keep or expand control over faculty, whether it’s through promotions, hiring or retirement”. She also argued that it exacerbated gender inequality.

“Very few people given time beyond 60 are female,” she said, partly because “women are more likely to take time for maternity leave or care for other family members. And while there is a ‘stop the clock’ policy on tenure, there isn’t for retirement.”

Professor Marchetti was “lucky” to have been given a five-year extension a few years back, but now she only has three semesters left. “I love my job and would love to stay.” 


Print headline: Is 60 too young to end a career?

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Reader's comments (2)

It is no bad thing to encourage older academics to retire. Most of us are not Nobel laureates and there are instances of the career progression of younger staff being hampered by those who will not let go of power. Having recently partly retired in my late 50s, I am keen to point out that there are those who have had enough well before 65. If reasonable contracts are on offer as in my own department it should be possible for those who wish to remain to continue in post. However, nobody is indispensable and succession planning should be encouraged but often is not given the character of many academics.
Not all academics want a full-time contract after the mandatory retirement age. For those still keen on a full-time job, positions are usually available in other institutions. Other academics upon retirement may wish to work part-time only and to pursue other interests.