Oxford physicist fights ‘unfair’ compulsory retirement

Laser expert challenges university over alleged age discrimination and unfair dismissal

September 11, 2019
Oxford skyline

A University of Oxford physicist dismissed before his 70th birthday because he was deemed too old is seeking reinstatement.

Paul Ewart, a former head of atomic and laser physics at Oxford, is the latest academic to challenge rules introduced in 2011 to stop staff working beyond their 67th birthday. The university insists that the Employment-Justified Retirement Age policy, which, from 2017, has required dons to retire at 68, exists to improve diversity and career progression for younger academics.

Last summer John Pitcher, a Shakespearean scholar at St John’s College, Oxford, lost his claim for age discrimination and unfair dismissal after an employment tribunal ruled that the university’s policy was a “necessary and appropriate means of achieving [a] legitimate aim”.

Now Professor Ewart, who worked at Oxford for 38 years until September 2017, has become the second person to challenge the policy in a tribunal, claiming that his “dismissal” was unfair and amounted to age discrimination given the “blossoming” of his research in his final two years, in which he published 15 papers and won leading roles in projects to create ultra-efficient engines.

His enforced retirement also scuppered promising efforts to set up a joint research centre in Beijing to tackle chronic air pollution in China and elsewhere, he claims.

Having been granted in 2014 an extra two years to work until he was 69, Professor Ewart presumed that he would be given a second extension until 2020 to allow him to complete several research projects, according to his witness statement presented at a seven-day employment tribunal in Reading, which ended on 6 September.

However, despite the support of his then-head of department Donal Bradley, who praised Professor Ewart’s “unique expertise” in laser measurement within engines, and fellow scientists at Oxford and other institutions, he was informed in February 2017 that his application for a three-year extension to work part-time had been rejected.

That refusal came despite the fact that his salary would have been almost entirely covered by grants that he had secured from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and other funding bodies, he insists.

According to Professor Ewart’s statement, he was told that his application was denied because a delay to the start of his work on ultra-efficient engines, which meant that the project would run into 2018, was “not unforeseeable”.

He later appealed to Oxford’s internal appeal panel in March 2017, but his case was not heard until December 2017 – three months after his departure from the university. His tribunal has taken almost a year to reach a full hearing.

Professor Ewart says that he was later asked to return to his laboratory in a consultancy role – an offer he refused because it was on a “totally unsatisfactory basis” that did not offer a “reasonable rate of payment”, although he continued to advise his doctoral students and postdocs for months after he was released.

Despite being dismissed almost two years ago, Professor Ewart is calling to be reinstated as a senior lecturer at 0.5 full-time equivalency so he can continue on projects which, he believes, will have “great importance for society, particularly in making a contribution to solving the problem of climate change and environmental pollution being driven by emissions from combustion”.

Professor Ewart also disputes the effectiveness of compulsory retirement in increasing diversity, observing that he was replaced by two men. The policy has made no significant difference to the age or gender profile of Oxford’s academic staff, he claims.


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Reader's comments (1)

One other number would improve this article: How many academics does Oxford have aged over 67? Zero now? Your story here [1] suggests there are 7000 UK-wide (about 3% of the roughly 250,000 total) [1] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/number-academics-working-beyond-65-uk-doubles

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