When are retired academics not...?

March 24, 2000

...when they continue to work part-time. Barbara Tizard unveils the results of a detailed survey of what becomes of lecturers and professors

Academics, like the rest of the population, are living longer and healthier lives, but are retiring earlier than before. This must raise concerns about the extent to which their expensively acquired skills and experience are then lost to society, at a time when higher education is expanding.

I sent a postal survey to all academics who had retired between 1993 and 1995 from 34 old English universities. The response rate of 71 per cent yielded a sample of 1,295. The majority had retired early - one-third between the ages of 50 and 59, another third between 60 and 64. Some had left reluctantly - nearly one-fifth said pressure had been put on them to retire. The most frequent reasons given for retiring were dissatisfaction with their university and being offered a favourable financial settlement. Their main complaints were of the pressures resulting from expanding student numbers, "Thatcherisation", the research assessment exercise and excessive demands for assessments and paperwork. But wider cultural influences were probably involved -throughout the western world, in a variety of professions, the retirement age is decreasing.

On retiring, most academics - two-thirds of those who retired early and nearly a half of those who retired at 65-plus - were re-employed part-time in a university, typically teaching courses in their own department, on a one-third basis, with a three-year contract. A few - 4 per cent - took university posts abroad, mostly full-time chairs. Three to five years later, nearly half of the sample were still employed in the university. A similar proportion were employed, mostly part-time, outside the university - many had both kinds of work. Only a tiny minority, 3 per cent, had made a complete career change, for example, to antique-dealing or dog-breeding. The rest were making direct use of their professional skills, for example, in consultancies, paid writing, teaching, self-employment in private practice or business, or membership of a government body. In all, 72 per cent of men under 60, 69 per cent of those aged 60-65, 54 per cent of those aged 66-68 and 58 per cent of those aged 69-74 had some paid employment. Rather fewer women were employed at each age. These proportions are significantly greater than in the general population, where, for example, only 7 per cent of men aged 69-74 have any paid employment.

Thus retirement for the majority of academics is no longer a point of final exit from the labour market at a fixed age, but rather the beginning of a different type of employment - part-time, varied, with no predictable ending. The change has come about as a response by universities to financial pressures and because of their wish to facilitate entrepreneurial strategies such as hiring consultants for specific tasks rather than full-time staff. There is no doubt this is popular with many academics, who prefer to work part-time while drawing a pension, with fewer administrative tasks and more time for other interests or for their own academic work. Only 16 per cent said they would prefer to have retired later than they did, and only 4 per cent said they were less contented as a consequence of retiring. Presumably because of their part-time work, only 15 per cent said they had financial concerns. So academics are more fortunate than those in most other professions, where, despite a shortage of skilled personnel, appropriate part-time work is usually not available after retirement.

Nevertheless, there is a loss of skills from the university. At a time of increasing life expectancy and expanding student numbers, it would seem rational to increase the mandatory retirement age, though this would be deeply unpopular with staff and employers.

Academics also tend to continue a variety of other, mostly unpaid, academic activities - attending conferences, reviewing, writing and editing academic books and articles. Nearly half were doing research, including research for a book. Two-fifths said they spent half or more of their time on academic activities, despite the fact that university resources - a shared university room, access to labs, to the academic email, or to computer facilities -were not widely available. Only one-fifth were neither in academic employment nor involved in other academic activities. Because of the extent of academic involvement, the usual retirement activities were not dominant in their lives. Less than a quarter did voluntary work more than occasionally, and only one-third said that interests other than their work took up a considerable amount of their time.

Differentiation, because of university grade and gender, continued to be prominent after retirement. Professors and readers were less likely to retire early than lecturers and senior lecturers, and they were more likely to have consultancies after retirement. They were much more likely to do research, to hold research grants and to be involved in all other academic activities, and they were more likely to have access to university resources. Along with this, they were much less likely to say that leisure interests took up a considerable amount of their time.

There were many gender differences, most relating to the fact that almost twice as many women as men retired on the lecturer grade. This may have been because of discrimination, the tendency of the women to work part-time, or to have late-starting or interrupted careers. But there were other differences independent of grade that were suggestive of discriminatory practices - women were employed by universities less often than men, had their pensions enhanced on early retirement less frequently and fewer university resources were available to them. Women were also more likely to give frequent care to a relative.

Universities, while encouraging early retirement, have shown little interest in supporting the academic activities that many academics, especially professors and readers, continue into old age. Academics often complained they lacked status and that their actual and potential contribution was not recognised. After retirement they were not asked to talk about their work or facilitated to do so.

Among the suggestions to improve this situation were: that those active in the university should have the title of honorary staff; that there should be a register of those available to undertake academic tasks; that there is a case for setting up post-retirement institutes to serve as a basis for research; and that there should be greater access to research grants and conference expenses for the retired. Some academics who are no longer teaching said they would like to help students in ways that are currently neglected - pastoral care, one-to-one tuition and remedial work, for example.

Given the pressure universities are under, the neglect of the potential contribution of retired staff seems shortsighted. What is needed is to develop a culture within the university, and society, in which it is taken for granted and facilitated that those retired academics who wish to do so should continue to make a professional contribution.

Barbara Tizard, FBA, is emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, London.

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