Cambridge academics rebel against forced retirement age

July 1st, 2024

Cambridge University has proposed increasing the mandatory retirement age for its academic staff from 67 to 69, while administrative and support staff would be exempt from this rule. Academic staff have reacted unhappily.

Many professors complain that the university will be losing out on many of their best professors to other universities, because they would either not join if they knew they would be forced out at either 67 or 69 or that many professors in their early sixties will look for new academic homes, meaning a loss of experienced academics, a brain drain and that they would take their big research grants with them. They argue that such policies stifle innovation and are inherently ageist, the inevitable conclusion of this policy being that academics cannot innovate as they get older.

If the policy is endorsed, and an academic is forced to retire, then there is a high risk the university will face age discrimination claims. Under the Equality Act 2010 age discrimination occurs when someone is treated less favourably for reasons relating to their age which cannot be objectively justified by the employer. The university would be put to justification of the policy and a tribunal would have to assess the validity of the policy. 

Oxford University has faced a similar situation and lost several employment tribunal cases over its mandatory retirement policy. Four former academics brought claims for age discrimination when they were forced to retire at the age of 68. 

Last year, the Employment Tribunal ruled that Oxford’s ‘Employer Justified Retirement Age’ (EJRA) policy had a highly discriminatory effect because it removed people from their jobs simply because they had attained a particular age. Oxford argued that the ERJA policy aimed to promote equality and diversity by opening up new opportunities, but the tribunal found that it had only contributed to this in a very small way and therefore such discrimination was not objectively justified. Other academic institutions might need to sit up and reconsider their positions. 

There is no uniform retirement age across all sectors, but in my view, in academia, it is difficult to see how a mandatory retirement policy can be justified and not be age discriminatory and therefore at risk of potential tribunal claims. 

This blog was written by Anita Vadgama, Partner at didlaw.

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