Academics at the University of Oxford are attempting to abolish a rule that forces them to retire at the age of 67 amid growing unrest over what they have called “unfair” and “unlawful” age discrimination.
In what has been described by participants in public debates at the university as a battle between “old, white men…hanging limpet-like to space and resource” and “talented young scholars…trying to get their first stable job”, senior academics have put forward a challenge to the “employer justified retirement age” that Oxford introduced in 2011 after the national abolition of the default retirement age.
Under the rules, which are also in place at the universities of Cambridge and St Andrews, academics in their sixties can apply for a short-term contract if they wish to work beyond the age of 67 – with the age limit set to rise shortly to 68 following a university review.
The rules were introduced partly to improve diversity among Oxford’s academic body; those behind them say that it is difficult to recruit more young, female and ethnic minority staff because older staff will often stay on in post, rather than leaving for more senior roles or professorships at other institutions.
However, several scholars are now appealing against decisions to force them into retirement. They argue that a ruling by former High Court judge Dame Janet Smith at an internal appeal hearing in 2014 shows that the university rule is “unlawful”. Instead of helping the younger generation of academics, the compulsory retirement age may, in fact, hurt them because senior figures may be forced to close down research teams made up of PhD and postdoctoral researchers, they say.
A motion to scrap the retirement age rule was debated by the university’s congregation on 16 May, but it was rejected by 143 votes to 64. A motion to raise the retirement age to 70 was rejected at an earlier debate, on 2 May, which heard accusations that a “gilded generation” of scholars aged over 60 was standing in the way of young scholars being forced to “make ends meet by cobbling together part-time contracts”.
“How can you look your young postdocs and doctoral students in the eye, when by clinging to your post you are denying them an opportunity that could be a lifeline?” asked Bill Allan, tutorial fellow in Classics at University College, Oxford.
However, Paul Ewart, professor of physics at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory, told Times Higher Education that several junior researchers would be negatively affected if he had to halt his research on using lasers to create cleaner combustion engines.
In addition, three postdoctoral research assistants would be left without a supervisor who understood their work, while the threat of his forced retirement in September was in effect “choking off” research into an important field because he was unable to seek further funding.
Professor Ewart, who is approaching his 69th birthday, was given a two-year extension when he was 67. He is now appealing against the decision to reject a second extension, which would bring his career to a close in September.
He believes that Oxford should allow a more “tapered” approach to retirement, such as allowing senior researchers to switch to part-time contracts.
“There is an underlying ageism that says you are over the hill at 67 or 68 when some people are very active at this age – Oxford is behind the curve on this,” Professor Ewart said.
Campaigners have now triggered a postal vote of the university’s 5,000-strong congregation on the issue, but a university spokesman said that the latest vote showed that the Oxford community had “once again demonstrated their support for arguments [that the retirement rule] creates opportunities for career progression, allows refreshment of the workforce, assists with succession planning, enhances diversity and promotes intergenerational fairness”.