Jobwatch: Beating a retirement Bulge

January 16, 2004

As more staff reach their 60s, institutions face the dilemma of whether to replace old for promising new staff or to attract RAE point-scorers with professorships and salaries to match. Pat Leon reports.

The retirement or death of a senior academic poses a dilemma: whether to replace at a similar level or to bring in cheaper, more junior new blood. The research assessment exercise has only added to the pressure on departments over whom they recruit.

The sudden death of Paul Hirst, a founder of the School of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck, University of London, prompted discussion about the appropriate appointment to replace him. Peter John, head of school, says:

"Paul had such a strong academic and media reputation that we felt it would not be appropriate to go for a lectureship and are advertising a professorship."

Every case is different, though, and you have to deal with each one on its merits, John says. "We thought about the balance of the department, where it was going, how many senior and junior staff we have. We had to put the case to the staffing committee as it's obviously more expensive. A chair is not automatic from the institution's perspective."

The London School of Economics responded to the retirement of one professor, Paul Taylor, and the departure of another, Chris Hill, by creating just one post: a professorship of international politics of Europe.

Margot Light, convener of the international relations department, says she hopes a more junior appointment will follow. However, that will need the approval of an LSE-wide committee deciding the five-year strategic plan.

"The 60-something retirement 'bulge' means we are suddenly losing some very senior staff," she says. "It's the normal sort of thing at this level, and every institution has to decide whether to replace at a senior or junior level. But it is difficult, particularly with the RAE, because we want people with a publication record who can bring in the funding, but we also want to renew our profile and have a varied age structure."

London institutions have a particular recruitment problem. "It's extremely difficult to employ professors established at provincial universities because of the higher cost of living and property," Light says.

"Universities do not provide relocation packages. They do not have the money and to do so would cause dissent among those already there."

Keele University had a similar discussion over two lectureships: in international relations and political philosophy/theory. Alex Danchev, head of the School of Politics, International Relations and the Environment, said: "These posts and others that follow are to revive and replenish by bringing in new blood. We feel we have become top heavy."

Preferred applicants are those who can cross disciplinary boundaries and have a grounding in philosophy. "We expect ethics to loom larger for new entrants to the profession than older ones," Danchev says. International relations is an increasingly competitive pan-European field, he says. "We'd be disappointed not to get a large number of high-quality applications."

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