Sterling silver assets

Mary Evans says the sector stands to gain from greater use of retired scholars' wisdom, experience and independence

September 18, 2008

For many academics, September will be a difficult month. Not because they have to return to the routines of term-time life, but for the opposite reason - that the coming of autumn no longer takes them back to work.

The baby-boom generation that made up first the student and then the staff population of the post-Robbins universities is now going (if not gone).

Retirement (or the "next stage of life" as the euphemistically minded describe it) is not, as numerous studies show, necessarily easy. It means, for many people, a lower income and a loss of status and contacts with colleagues.

Retirement may well mean loneliness and isolation; the sense, as winter draws in, of living not a dream of old age but a nightmare of daytime television and the same four walls. There is always the allotment, the grandchildren and volunteer work, but the days may be long and empty.

There is no reason to suppose that universities have a particular responsibility to manage or even be concerned about the conditions of retirement of their staff. Academics are not especially materially under-privileged, nor has their work left them physically exhausted or injured. Despite the dark picture of what retirement can be like, it is also often hugely enjoyable.

So concern for the retired or soon-to-retire may be less about the retirees themselves than about their loss to the institutions they leave behind. The question of what institutions lose when long-term employees leave has been addressed in the BBC television drama New Tricks, in which three retirement-age policemen join a special unit investigating unsolved crimes.

The programme has been hugely successful, perhaps not least because its not-particularly coded message is that "old" people have skills (notably of experience and judgment) that others may not yet have acquired.

These "old" policemen can also think outside the institutionally framed boxes within which younger colleagues have to operate. And, having earned their pensions and as much promotion as they are ever going to get, they are not driven by careerist motivations.

New Tricks is, of course, a fantasy world, but its resonance for institutions other than the police force is considerable. Consider, for example, how the teaching profession, from nursery to higher education, could benefit from the participation of those who no longer have to make their careers but may still wish to contribute.

This is not about clogging up the ladders of the professions with those who refuse to leave their full-time jobs. It is about recognising that in a culture in which innovation and change have become iconic, there is also a place for memory and reflection.

There is also - and this is particularly true of many public services in Britain - a need for individuals who have the personal and institutional space to think independently and sceptically.

This is not to say that these qualities are not widely found throughout higher education. It is, however, to suggest that universities would do themselves and their students a considerable service if they enlarged their "open" spaces and allowed them to be inhabited by those with nothing to gain (or lose) by conformity.

There is no reason for universities to harbour grumpy old academics or offer further succour for miserabilism and for those for whom change - whether in the world or in higher education - is always for the worst. But perhaps formally appointed "senior scholars" could offer to academic communities (and their younger individuals) time for discussion and support that might be of value in what is too often a lonely job.

Emeritus positions offer little formal responsibility, but a new kind of post-retirement position could ease the pains of departure for some while encouraging different ways of thinking about work, for others.

The glory of retirement for many academics is its distance from bureaucracy; for those still constrained by those structures, the formal presence of those independent of them could offer both professional assistance and the more symbolic reassurance of the long-term value of that objective, exploratory and open-minded attitude that forms the basis of creative academic work.

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