Do ‘retire and return’ staff help or hinder universities?

Does flexible working benefit universities as well as individuals? Jack Grove reports

May 25, 2016
Elderly man doing spilts on street pavement
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With a mortgage paid off, some savings and a gold-plated pension, most academics have traditionally been happy to retire at the age of 65 – sometimes much earlier.

But a growing number of university staff are now deciding to keep working into their late sixties and often beyond. Since the compulsory retirement age was scrapped almost five years ago, the number of university staff aged 66 or over has almost doubled, rising by 84 per cent between 2010-11 and 2014-15, according to information the Higher Education Statistics Agency released in February.

Many of the baby boomers sticking around campus are part of a new “retire and return” generation, who are both drawing their pension and still working, albeit fewer hours than previously, the Universities Human Resources annual conference, held in Brighton from 17 to 20 May, was told.

“Some at our institution are very senior clinicians and professors who might be involved in a multi-year research programme, so they have good reasons to come back,” explained one senior administrator at a leading UK research institute at a session organised by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association on 18 May.

Others seeking to remain in academia beyond retirement did so for other reasons, another university administrator explained at the session, where comments were made on an anonymous basis.

Plus points: office space and email

“People want to stay on because they enjoy being surrounded by colleagues or may simply want to have an office or access to a university email account,” she said.

Many of those in their late fifties and sixties may also seek to work fewer hours to either help look after grandchildren or elderly parents, one university administrator said.

“We have just as many requests for flexible working from those with caring commitments related to their parents as we do from parents who want to look after their young children,” she said.

While many institutions are keen to retain the talents and experience of staff, flexible working for older staff was not seen as an unmitigated good for higher education.

“If you are younger, then you might not be able to progress to the next level if someone has decided they don’t want to retire,” said one senior administrator, who believed frustrated staff might leave the sector in search of promotion.

Requests to give up teaching and concentrate on research were also commonplace, but were likely to disrupt the make-up of departments and cause discontent, one commenter added.

However, flexible retirement – and flexible working, more generally – could be vital in retaining difficult-to-recruit staff who might otherwise leave higher education for health reasons, in particular symptoms relating to the menopause, said one administrator.

With a largely older female workforce of senior teachers or nurses teaching education and health subjects, many women would simply quit their roles rather than explain why they needed to take things easier, she said.

“Women do not want to go and talk about it if their boss is a man,” she explained.

Indeed, universities should strive not to ask too many questions about the reasons for a flexible working or retirement request and instead focus on where it was possible, others agreed.

“We shouldn’t be looking for a reason, but simply say ‘yes, we can accommodate that’ and move beyond the idea of why is this person doing it,” another staff member said.

Jacqui Marshall, human resources director at the University of Exeter, told Times Higher Education that flexible working presented new challenges to universities but was increasingly vital to their success, with younger “millennials” also seeking flexible hours as part of a wider portfolio career.

“Flexible working is harder to balance with business considerations such as higher operational costs and continuity of delivery in terms of timetabling and student experience,” she said, but it is "going to be critical for universities to adapt to, as they employ a growing number of millennials and will need to work harder to attract staff in a more global competitive market”.

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