‘Forced retirement’ rules face new challenge at Cambridge

Policy requiring dons to depart at 67 ‘has not opened up opportunities for younger people’, say professors

January 18, 2023
Elderly couple walking down the street in Cambridge to illustrate ‘Forced retirement’ rules face new challenge at Cambridge
Source: Alamy

Academics at the University of Cambridge are mounting a challenge to the institution’s “forced retirement” policy, claiming it has failed in its goal to create opportunities for younger members of staff.

Scholars have their employment automatically terminated in the September of the academic year in which they turn 67 and must demonstrate “exceptional circumstances” if they wish to stay in post beyond this date.

The institution is one of only three in the UK to have adopted such a policy – known as an Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) – since the introduction of the Equality Act in 2010, alongside the universities of St Andrews and Oxford, with the latter facing numerous legal challenges, which have forced it to revise the rule.

Cambridge has not yet had to defend EJRA at tribunal, but a group of 53 academics have initiated a discussion of the policy at the university’s governing body, Regent House, on 24 January, in the hope of getting it rescinded ahead of the start date of the new vice-chancellor, Deborah Prentice.

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering, who is himself approaching the retirement age, said EJRA was harming the ability of the university to attract the best staff and secure research funding, with world-leading professors sometimes prevented from applying for grants that would take them past their retirement date.

“What this means is as soon as you reach 61 or 62, you find your ability to apply for research grants is severely curtailed,” he said. “I have one colleague who came here from another Russell Group university and had she realised then that she would be stopped from applying for research grants, she would not have moved.”

Cambridge states that EJRA ensures “inter-generational fairness and career progression”, but Professor Anderson pointed out that older academics often create opportunities for more junior staff by bringing in money for big research projects, something that is restricted by the policy.

He said an analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency records conducted on behalf of the Oxford professor Paul Ewart – who won a tribunal case over his own forced retirement – found that Oxford and Cambridge were no better than other Russell Group institutions in creating new job opportunities and worse at addressing gender pay gaps, another aim of the policy.

Unlike Oxford, Cambridge also insists that academic-related staff retire at 67, which Professor Anderson said affected positions such as computer technicians.

“They know an awful lot about our systems and their evolution, quirks and complexities, and they will be next to impossible to replace with younger people at the same salary or indeed at any salary,” he said.

“Forcing people to retire when they don’t want to when we are critically short of first-class professional services staff is again simply insane.”

The verdict in another tribunal brought by Oxford professors is expected soon, which – if the judge finds against the institution – could force Cambridge to make changes to the policy. Professor Anderson said officials were already looking at EJRA via a working group and he hopes the campaign – backed by the likes of renowned psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and philosophy professor Arif Ahmed – will influence the debate.

“We really have made a mountain out of a molehill here. Human beings are not immortal and if you no longer force people to retire at 67, my reckoning is people might work for an average of a year and a half to two years longer…That is what we see elsewhere.”

A Cambridge spokesman said: “An academic-led review of the university’s retirement policy is taking place and there will be a full consultation with the university community on any proposed changes.”


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