Why I... think compulsory retirement should be abolished

September 13, 2002

Although not implemented until 2006, the European directive of November 2001 on workplace discrimination has altered everything and has made voluntary retirement a national issue.

University unions have got on board. Motions supporting voluntary retirement have been referred to the Association of University Teachers'

executive from its Scottish and UK councils, though they seem to have died there.

There seem to be two objections to the directive. One is that unions fear that the government wants to raise the retirement age for all. A second is that "undesirables" will hang on.

The first point is an irrelevance. It is not beyond the ability of the AUT and other unions to fight the proposal to raise the general retirement age while campaigning for it to become non-compulsory.

The second is a red herring. There are fewer than 3,000 lecturers in the 61 to 65 age bracket. There is a huge battery of measures that administrators use to increase stress to the point where the odd "incompetent" retires early. This applies particularly to those over 65, as labour law does not protect them.

Financially, things are not as straightforward as they may seem. New lecturers usually have much lower salaries than those leaving at 65, but the differential is negligible for lecturers who have been in employment for more than ten years. Moreover, hiring new lecturers may involve hidden costs in terms of training, extra work for other lecturers and the impact this has on students. There is also the loss of the former lecturer's research output.

British industry is moving with the times. Barclays Bank has raised its retirement age to 70, and Nationwide has altered its rules.

University employers, however, want to be able to lose lecturers in the later age groups. The very small number of academics in the final five-year period is not a reflection of ill health or lack of academic interest but rather of the fact that employers have enticed, cajoled and compelled lecturers to retire early to improve the look of their bottom line.

They take advantage of the relatively low pensions on offer and the desire of older lecturers to continue teaching and researching and employ retired lecturers on a pittance. If allowed to continue, this trend will grow over time, depressing the intake of new lecturers and so improving university finances.

In any case, the campaign for voluntary retirement aims to alter the age profile by only a small number of extra years.

Another reason to make retirement voluntary is that the decline in the state pension, the very low interest rate and later entry to employment have all eroded the real pension. The end result is that many lecturers will have a financially difficult old age.

Unions and employers ought to settle the whole issue voluntarily and provide a range of possibilities beyond indefinite full continuance. The majority might prefer part-time re-employment, others a few years before a date of final retirement.

At present, the age of compulsory retirement is different across the system, even if the Universities Superannuation Scheme takes 65 as the normal age of retirement. Other countries such as the US have made the age of retirement voluntary with positive results. I have a cousin teaching in a university in Washington DC who at 79 received a veteran's award for teaching in higher education. He, like many others over 65, is more vital, dynamic and innovative than many lecturers in their 20s. Any good lecturer of 65 will have the experience, knowledge and training to make them invaluable members of their department.

In addition to these more practical arguments, there is also, of course, the real human tragedy of casting out people from their life's work, often at their peak. A rational and humane society would behave very differently - but we do not live in such a society and our administrators know it.

Hillel Ticktin
Professor of Marxist studies, Centre for Socialist Theory and Movements Glasgow University

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