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Rapid rise in professors aged over 65 sparks opportunities debate

Written by: Simon Baker
Published on: 4 Feb 2021

Group of elderly people on walking holiday negotiating a ladder access over a wall between fields, English Lake District

Source: Alamy

The number of professors still working in UK higher education beyond their 65th birthday has risen by more than half in the past five years, raising questions about whether delayed retirement is making it even harder for younger researchers to reach the top rung of academia.

Professors in this age group made up 11.3 per cent of the professoriate in 2019-20, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show, up from 8.6 per cent in 2014-15. Approaching half (46 per cent) of all professors are aged above 55, with the share in the 36 to 45 age bracket falling 2 percentage points over the period to 14 per cent. The number of professors in this younger age group has risen by just 2 per cent, to 3,190, since 2014-15, compared with an overall increase in the total professoriate of 16 per cent.

Whether older professors create a blockage in the system has been hotly debated since the UK abolished compulsory retirement in 2011. In 2019, physicist Paul Ewart won an employment tribunal case against the University of Oxford’s retirement age policy after arguing that it would create only a small number of opportunities for younger academics, one of its stated aims. Oxford is appealing the ruling.

Gergely Toldi, a consultant neonatologist who is a member of the Global Young Academy and an honorary research fellow at the University of Birmingham, said that in an “ideal world”, it should be possible for professors to work longer as well as creating enough opportunities for younger academics.

However, he warned that the coronavirus pandemic was creating more pressure for those early in their careers “as their positions tend to be less secure than professorial chairs”.

Dr Toldi said one of the solutions had to be more funding opportunities “exclusively” for early career researchers, while there could also be mentoring opportunities to aid competitiveness in grant calls.

Anjali Shah, co-chair of the UK Research Staff Association and an epidemiologist who advises on researcher development at Oxford, said one “catch-22 element” to the researcher pipeline was that it was often in postdocs’ interest for senior staff to stay in post.

“Very few researchers want their professors or principal investigators to retire because they have the reputation that brings in money for salaries and research projects. Those professors also act as mentors to junior researchers. It’s often the mid-level scientists who leave academic research, which does leave a gap,” she said.

Dr Shah said she would like to see more block funding in the sector going into creating longer-term “staff scientist” roles across the whole career pipeline “to cover all the lab managers, epidemiologists, programme managers, statisticians and so on who do vital work”.

Gary Thomas, emeritus professor of inclusion and diversity at Birmingham, who recently retired aged 70, said the mentorship that experienced staff could offer was a major asset that should be explored by institutions.

But universities could also ease intergenerational tensions through more use of schemes such as flexible retirement, where senior staff move to part-time work.

“For some reason, the schemes, while available, are often refused to those who request them,” he said. “This would seem to me to be universities shooting themselves in the foot. If professors are willing to work for, say, 50 per cent salary, the university will gain hugely from their experience and expertise while [they are] still on the payroll.”