Cambridge university looks set to keep retirement age

 

uni.jpgCambridge University is planning to buck the trend by retaining a retirement age for its established, tenured academics, subject to final agreement by its governing body.

At the heart of this decision is the fear that the age-old institution – established 800 years ago – would lose its world-renowned reputation for innovation and creativity if the flow of new, younger talent were to be slowed by the resultant retention of older academics. Speaking about the university’s concerns and its planned retirement policy at the annual CIPD conference, Indi Seehra, director of HR at the university, told delegates that well over two-thirds of new academic opportunities created at the institution are directly due to retirement of academics.

He referred to Harvard University in the United States, where there is no mandatory retirement age, where some senior academics remain in situ until they are 80. “Why would they want to leave?” he points out.

Indi Seehra also said that Oxford University is thinking on similar lines as Cambridge about retaining a retirement age.

Cambridge University’s example will be of interest to other employers considering whether or not to keep a retirement age, not least because it has undergone a rigorous process of research, debate and internal consultation over the past year to try and ensure that it can provide a watertight case if challenged under legislation relating to age discrimination or unfair dismissal. According to XpertHR’s latest retirement survey (subscription required), very few employers feel confident that they can justify retaining a retirement age using legitimate criteria. Just one of the 157 organisations participating in the research, carried out in early 2011, intended to keep an employer justified retirement age, although three in ten were undecided about what form their retirement policy would take.

Since April 2011, when legislation outlawed the default retirement age, employers have had to decide whether they remove any reference to a retirement age from their policies, or whether they retain an employer justified retirement age. It is not yet clear what criteria will be admissible as proof that a retirement age is objectively justified. Employers must be able to prove that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

When assessing its retirement policy, Cambridge University’s deliberations went as follows:

  • The university’s HR committee established a working group in November 2010 to look into the pros and cons of having an employer justified retirement age for all or some staff.
  • The working group looked at internal information on management and employee trends, looked at what other employers are doing, studied the case law on retirement, held employee consultations and looked at the implications for academics.
  • The group identified several reasons for having an employer-justified retirement age for the academic faculty:
    1. inter-generational fairness was considered a strong case (a retirement age would enable all employees to progress through the promotional stages in the course of their careers creating a more balanced distribution of ages);
    2. refreshment of the academy (a balanced mix across the generations is considered crucial for innovation and new ideas, and it allows new academics/senior administrators to join);
    3. preservation of academic autonomy and freedom (academics/senior administrators are given the employment security to perform their research without fear of negative action, and retirement age is considered a necessary counterbalance to the enhanced security; and
    4. equality and diversity (a retirement age will assist the university to meet public duty and address its race and gender imbalance at certain levels).
  • Facts supporting the employer justified retirement age are that:
    1. More than 64% of new academic opportunities created are directly due to retirement;
    2. At least 65.6% of retirees among academic staff retire at the current retirement age of 67, or later; and
    3. the average length of service of academics is 14.2 years.

All these figures are significantly higher for academics than for other categories of staff.

  • The working group has put three options forward for consideration, which will be subject to a final vote in early 2012. The preferred option would be that the employer justified retirement age of 67 is applied to established, tenured academics and some senior administrators only. It would incorporate flexibility around the employment arrangements for employees reaching the retirement age, including phased retirement and a procedure with clear criteria for requesting to work beyond that age.

Photo by John Menard. 

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