Scrapheap still looms for those who hit 65

January 12, 2007

Many academics nearing retirement fear they will be forced to quit before they are ready despite the introduction of regulations to end age discrimination. Melanie Newman reports.

When Paulina Palmer reached 65, Warwick University agreed that she could continue as senior lecturer in English until she reached 67. But any extension beyond that, Dr Palmer was told, was "out of the question".

"Warwick had treated me quite well during my employment, but I still felt I was being put on the scrapheap," she said.

Dr Palmer is typical of the growing numbers of healthy, fit and active staff who see their academic careers cut short by a UK retirement age fixed arbitrarily at 65. And just behind them is the baby-boomer generation of academics who bristle at the thought of being compelled to retire before they are ready.

Dr Palmer, who is now 69, has a sessional lecturing job at the University of London, but Warwick says she cannot supervise PhDs because it is not a full-time post.

This year, a 65-year-old professor, who asked not to be named, left Britain to teach in the US, where there is no mandatory retirement age.

"I could have insisted on staying till 67, but they didn't want me," he said of his UK employers.

"I was marginalised by the new young head of department who felt that 'new blood' was better than experience."

In a recent University and College Union survey, more than a quarter of respondents aged 55-64 said they felt discriminated against because of their age.

Regulations that came into force in October should help old academics.

Under the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, people can apply to work beyond 65 and must now be considered for jobs alongside younger colleagues.

David Bartram, senior lecturer in sociology at Leicester University, hopes to stay on. He said: "I enjoy my work, and retirement sounds boring."

Other academics said financial considerations would drive them to work as long as they could.

One senior lecturer who declined to be named was 36 before she achieved her first full-time appointment and finally began to contribute to a pension.

"I will probably need to work longer," she said.

Some fear that the new legislation could lead to "promotion blocking", a situation in which older academics who stay on frustrate younger academics eager to make progress in their careers.

David Read, emeritus professor of plant sciences at Sheffield University, believes people who want fully paid work past 65 are selfish. "They've had a good bite at the cherry. By staying on, they are excluding younger people," he said.

Others argue that there is no reason why a moral obligation to vacate a post should suddenly kick in at 65. Some even think it necessary for staff to stay on.

Alan Walker, professor of social policy at Sheffield, noted: "Given the decline in the birth rate here (in the UK), the major issue will be the need to retain staff."

The UCU poll reveals that 43 per cent of staff over 50 would retire immediately if they could.

Stephen Halliwell, 53, professor of Greek at St Andrews University, said that he had not suffered discrimination, but he added: "Working conditions in UK universities are now so stressful that I can't imagine many academics wanting to work beyond retirement age."

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that 31.4 per cent of UK academics in 2004-05 were aged 50-plus. This compares with 35.7 per cent of further education staff in England in this age group.

In practice, the new law may have little effect. While academics have the right to apply to work beyond the default retirement age, employers need not give reasons for refusing them.

As Colm O'Cinneide, lecturer in law at University College London, put it:

"The law does not place a substantive or tangible requirement on employers."

Heyday, Age Concern's membership organisation, is challenging the regulations; its case was referred to the European Court of Justice in 2006.

If Heyday is successful, employers will be unable to rely on the default retirement age of 65 to justify retirement dismissals. Some universities are already considering allowing staff to choose their retirement age.

But should the law remain, it could disadvantage academics in the short term. "Many departments have allowed academics to continue on an ad hoc basis, perhaps renewing contracts yearly," Mr O'Cinneide explained. "They are now moving towards stricter fixed policies, for fear of litigation if they grant one employee an extension and not another."

In the long term, the law could improve attitudes to older staff, he believes.

The professor who left for the US said attitudes there were "far more genial".

"I have not encountered the merest smidgen of age discrimination. My new head of department is only two months younger than me and does not intend to retire until he's at least 70."


When mandatory retirement was generally abolished in the US in 1986, universities could still retire professors at 70. That exemption was removed in 1994.

A 2001 study found that before 1994, 90 per cent of professors working at age 70 had retired within two years, whereas after 1994 half were still teaching two years later. The study's authors predicted a significant rise in the proportion of professors over 70 in future years.

A literature review on mandatory retirement published by the UK's Department of Trade and Industry noted that "promotion blockage" was not seen as a problem in the US.

However, departments' ability to switch resources between areas of study and to expand and contract was affected. This was partly because the existence of tenure in the US means that professors could not be made redundant.



* When Richard Kirkwood hits 65 in September, he has no intention of stopping work.

He is a lecturer in sociology and politics at London Metropolitan University, which until now has strictly enforced retirement at 65. Mr Kirkwood plans to use the new law to continue working.

"I love teaching, and I want to go on for as long as I'm getting positive feedback," he said.

His pension entitlements mean he does not need to continue working for financial reasons, and he admitted that were the university to propose that he retire and return as a part-time worker, he might consider accepting that kind of arrangement.

"I wouldn't miss the admin and form-filling; it's the teaching I want," he said.

* Kenyon Mason , emeritus professor of forensic medicine at Edinburgh Univer-sity, is 87. He would have missed a distinguished second career in medical jurisprudence had Edinburgh's School of Law not offered him an honorary fellowship on his retirement in 1985.

He said that he would not have continued in medicine had he been given the option. "I wanted a change of direction," he said.

But he was aware that he might be blocking a younger person's career.

"I was working unpaid, but I told myself that once the department found money to employ someone I wouldn't stand in their way," he said. The school did appoint a medical jurisprudence professor and the two work together.

Will he continue for much longer?

"As long as they feel I'm worth the room," he joked.

* David Parrott , a 48-year-old fellow and tutor in modern history at New College, Oxford University, said he might want to work past 65, "but for three years maximum".

He believes that many academics would welcome a return to a retirement age of 67, but few would wish to continue into their seventies.

Were this to happen, posts would be vacated at a different rate and in different sequences, he predicted, but the new law would not completely transform the academic job market.

If he is wrong about academics not wishing to work beyond 70, he said, the law would "reshape" career paths of young academics.

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