Academics at the University of Oxford look set to challenge once again rules that force them to quit work at the age of 68 after a professor became the latest scholar to overturn enforced retirement.
In the latest clash over a policy introduced to help “intergenerational fairness”, a leading former judge ruled in an internal appeal that Oxford should reinstate Peter Edwards, professor of inorganic chemistry, after it “discriminated [against him] on the grounds of age” by seeking his retirement.
In an unusual move, Sir Mark Waller asked for his normally confidential judgment to be made public – with the university also releasing a second judgment from September 2014, in which retired High Court judge Dame Janet Smith criticised the treatment of another professor under the compulsory retirement policy as “fundamentally unacceptable” and amounting to “unfair dismissal”.
Under the rules, academics are currently required to retire at the age of 67, although they can apply for a two-year extension. The age limit is set to rise shortly to 68 after a university review.
Efforts to overturn Oxford’s Employer-Justified Retirement Age (EJRA), introduced in 2011 after the national abolition of the default retirement age, have so far failed. The university congregation backed the policy for the sixth time last month in a postal vote triggered by campaigners, with about two-thirds of voters (1,142) supporting the rule and nearly one-third (538) opposing it.
However, campaigners believe that the release of the two appeal judgments could be a turning point.
David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, who is opposed to the EJRA, said that the university’s “congregation has never yet been fully informed on all this when trying to make a proper decision”.
“The university’s pathetic hiding of the Smith judgment for so long hardly demonstrates that congregation has, so far, been properly informed,” said Mr Palfreyman, bursar of New College, Oxford.
In his judgment, Sir Mark – who served as the Intelligence Services Commissioner between 2011 and 2017 – criticises the failure to show Dame Janet’s findings to the congregation before it voted on the issue, stressing the need for a “balanced debate” based on the facts. He also says, however, that a vote did not necessarily make the EJRA process lawful, although it could be an “important material factor” if it were challenged.
Paul Ewart, professor of physics at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory, said that Sir Mark’s judgment was an important victory for the campaign.
“Another eminent judge has confirmed Dame Janet’s judgment that the university’s EJRA was not objectively justified and therefore unfair, and rebuked council for withholding the original judgment from congregation before it voted to retain it,” he said.
In public debates at the university over the past few months, the issue of compulsory retirement has been described 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”.
Defenders of the EJRA, which is also in effect at the universities of Cambridge and St Andrews, claim that low turnover of staff at these institutions means fewer opportunities for younger scholars – particularly female and ethnic minority staff – as academics are happy to stay put well into their seventies.
A University of Oxford spokesman played down the significance of the two internal appeal decisions, saying that they both relate to the EJRA system in place before September 2015 when major revisions were made to procedures in light of Dame Janet’s recommendations, including a one-year increase in the retirement age.
“Neither decision challenges the validity of a university EJRA as a means of promoting intergenerational fairness and maintaining opportunities for career progression,” he said. “This fundamental principle has been overwhelmingly endorsed by congregation, which has now voted six times in the last three months to support the revised EJRA.”