The age issue won’t be solved by driving out old scholars

Pushing out senior academics to make room for younger ones would only perpetuate an insidious ageism, says Geoffrey Alderman

September 3, 2015
Miles Cole illustration (3 September 2015)
Source: Miles Cole

Do “older academics” really need to “make room for the young?” According to a recent opinion article in this publication (“Giving up the post”, 13 August), they most certainly do.

Apparently too many of us old ’uns (I am 71), safe in the knowledge that the Equality Act 2010 abolished enforced retirement, are making unseemly but desperate efforts to cling to our posts, and the book-lined offices and stationery cupboards that customarily go with them. And because of this selfishness – because of this delusion that the world cannot carry on without us – we are partly to blame for the “misery, poverty, low self-esteem and unemployment” that face many of our bright young PhD graduates, only 19 per cent of whom are (according to the National Union of Students) employed in any type of academic job.

One remedy put forward in Sally Feldman’s article is the creation of part-time positions that older academics can fill – fractional appointments and/or consultancies that free up full-time permanent positions for that misery-laden younger generation of unemployed scholars. I am not necessarily decrying the creation of such part-time posts, for those seniors who genuinely want them. What worries me is that this solution aids and abets the ageism that I believe is rife in the taxpayer-funded higher education sector in the UK. It affects to solve one problem, but in so doing perpetuates another. Moreover, the other problem that it perpetuates is hardly recognised within the sector, and rarely discussed.

Officially, of course, age discrimination cannot and therefore does not exist. Universities advertising or soliciting permanent positions are prohibited from enquiring as to the age of an applicant; those applicants who agree to divulge their dates of birth on equality monitoring forms are assured that this information will not be forwarded to shortlisting committees. This is a joke in very poor taste, because application forms invariably also ask for the dates on which academic qualifications were obtained, and this information is certainly placed before selection panels. “I see that you graduated with an Oxford bachelor’s in 1965,” one panel member remarked with a smile. “That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?” The message was very clear. On one occasion, I actually redesigned the online application form so that “date of graduation” boxes did not appear. The HR department in question phoned me about this, and when I explained why I had gone to this trouble I was told that without these dates my application would be deemed invalid, and rejected. Which it was.

Older academics also face prejudice of another sort. In the managerialist environment that now pervades much of UK higher education, and with the abolition of tenure, the most potent weapon of choice available to the managerial classes is the threat of dismissal. A young academic, with a family to support and a mortgage to pay, is likely to think long and hard before seriously challenging a decision of his line manager. But this weapon is simply useless against an older academic, with no mortgage outstanding and already drawing one or more pensions (I currently draw five, by the way). So in any stand-off with a line manager, I’m in the driving seat, so to speak. I hasten to add that this is not a weapon I’ve personally ever had to use. But at one job interview the scenario was put to me with a charming candour. I was not offered the post.

Of course I am mindful of the need to bring into the academy younger generations of scholars. Indeed, I consider it a solemn professional duty. But this has to be done in a positive way, not at the expense of senior academicians. I still teach, and I am still very much research-active. Last year I published my 14th book; my 15th is nearing completion, and I am working on my 16th. Later this year, my 115th peer-reviewed essay will be published. I enjoy committees, and I chair several. I write a weekly newspaper column. I maintain a Twitter account and blog irregularly.

As Feldman herself says, “the majority of academics have enormous reserves of wisdom, expertise and scholarly experience that should not be wasted”. I should certainly resist being put out to grass simply and solely to create living space for an “early career” researcher. But I will agree that, as we all live longer, academic career structures need to be fundamentally rethought. It is surely significant that the ageism to which I have referred is far less prevalent in the private higher education sector, where age counts for much less than the straightforward ability to do the job.

Geoffrey Alderman is professor of history and politics at the University of Buckingham.


Print headline: There is an age issue, but asking old ’uns to go won’t solve it

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Reader's comments (2)

Viva! Well written and timely. For those still on the way to his/her dotage ... continuing education is THE way to keep the door ajar. Our previous qualifications began to depreciate as soon as we put away our gowns! Professor Alderman, you has set the example!
Well said, Geoffrey! Of course, no one would suggest that a professor who is slipping in later years be kept in full-time post, but you are a classic example of the sort of dynamic individual whose experience and wisdom, as well as continuing energy, should be exploited to the advantage of their academic community. Indeed, not only are older academics valuable for their scholarly contributions, but their mentorship for younger academics is irreplaceable.