Is Oxford too old?

Why professors aren't retiring and junior academics are leaving.

It was reported last month that four Oxford professors won an age discrimination case against the University, after being forced to retire the September before they turned 69. The policy, called the Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA), was reportedly established to help early career academics, but the tribunal argued that it was “about the most extreme discriminatory impact possible in the realms of employment”. And this isn’t the first time the courts have ruled in Oxford professors’ favour – in December 2019, Prof Paul Ewart – former head of atomic and laser physics at the University – won his case, arguing that forced retirement is fundamentally unfair. Despite receiving a sizeable sum from Oxford, his old post was filled by a younger academic. And not everyone who has appealed has been compensated – former Oxford don Prof John Pitcher lost a similar claim after he was made to retire at 67, in May 2019. Whilst it may be expected that professors have an older average age – due to the reputation needed to reach such a position – if Oxford is to retain its status as a world-leading institution, surely it needs to attract and retain younger talent? These repeated court cases, which are undoubtedly costing the University millions of pounds, has made me believe that Oxford has an age problem. 

Oxford University’s most recent Equality Report (2020-21) revealed that almost half of academic staff were over the age of 50, with 18% over 60. At first glance, this appears broadly in line with national figures for the same time period, with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reporting that almost half of professors in the UK were aged 56 and over in 2020/21. This is not an overtly ‘bad’ thing, however professors are often the ones leading the development of their disciplines and shaping what and how future academics will study. Hence, a diversity of ages (as well as ethnicities and genders) is beneficial at higher pay grades, as it can prevent complacency and help older staff adopt new technologies and teaching styles more smoothly.  

The inability of younger people to progress to senior academic positions is perhaps most evident in the University’s Staff Experience Survey 2021. Of 8597 respondents, only 44% agreed that “there is a fair and transparent way of allocating work in my department”, whilst 43% agreed that “management and decision-making processes are clear and transparent in my department”. 

Although 57% of those surveyed felt that they had “the opportunity to develop and grow here”,  these seem to be shockingly low numbers for a University which proudly boasts it’s accolade of “Apprenticeship Employer of the Year” (2021), and has one of the most generous family leave schemes in the Higher Education sector (including its own nurseries). According to this, younger female academics – who are more likely to require parental leave or leave for family responsibilities – should feel supported by their employers. I wonder if this is true, considering that only 19% of Statutory Professors at Oxford were women, between 2018 and 2021.

Part of the reason why younger people can’t achieve senior roles may be due to their contracts. The University and Colleges Union (UCU) states that almost 77% of academic staff at Oxford are on fixed-term or atypical contracts, meaning that they are constantly searching for new roles and cannot invest ample time and energy in their research. Although the casualisation of the academic workforce is a national problem, such high figures for Oxford suggest that Statutory Professors are significantly more secure than their younger colleagues. This is because, according to the University’s website:

“The majority of professorships (also known as “chairs”) are statutory, for example, they are permanent posts within the University’s staff structure, although occasionally a fixed-term professorship may be created in particular circumstances.”

Just because junior academics are younger and less experienced, should they really be forced into the “really tough” conditions that Prof Irene Tracey promised to investigate when she became the new vice-chancellor in January?

Even Cambridge employs a significantly smaller proportion of its staff on fixed term contracts, compared to Oxford. And this pressure is having massive impacts on women, ethnic minorities and those from less affluent backgrounds, according to Emma Irving’s recent Economist article. Opaque hiring practices also abound at Oxford, according to Irving’s sources, and having spoken to academics myself, the confusion produced through the multiple scales of authority here (college vs department vs university) can make it easy to conceal biased hiring decisions. As well as lending itself to employing friends of friends or older academics, arguably having staff on fixed term contracts is bad for student experience too. 

Tutors being forced to hand over supervision of dissertations after only a year of working with a student, students having to adjust to different teaching styles every year and burn out across the university is something which we’re just expected to deal with at Oxford. Whilst I’m careful not to bite the hand that feeds – and I’m still glad that I came to study here – the structure of the university makes it easier for some academics to prosper, whilst others cannot. If most staff feel that work isn’t allocated fairly in their department, then they’re bound to feel underappreciated, and their insights potentially go unacknowledged. In addition, they may – unwittingly or overtly – discourage undergraduates from pursuing further degrees. Having witnessed the stress levels and high expectations placed on lecturers’ shoulders, I certainly have no desire to enter the education sector.

As I mentioned earlier, old white men dominating long-term academic positions could be negative for the discipline more broadly too. As there is a turn towards queer epistemologies, decolonial methodologies and listening to marginalised voices in subjects ranging from geography to English and biology, it is often the young who are among the frontrunners in their field. Restricting academic knowledge production to a privileged minority can and never will be a good idea, if we want our research to be robust and interesting. 

The University must consider what it can do to support young academics. From a student perspective, being forced to vacate our accommodation every term as if it is a hotel, WiFi issues, college bureaucracy and expensive meal costs in hall – as well as the price of living in one of the UK’s most expensive cities – certainly don’t compel me to complete a Masters or DPhil here. I believe that Oxford is focusing too much on flexible retirement, rather than acknowledging the competing responsibilities that junior academics face. If the university doesn’t up its game, then there risks being a ‘brain drain’ from the sector, as young adults are forced into non-academic jobs due to their pay, and older academics retire.

A statement from the University on this article’s claims reads: ‘The University has been notified of the tribunal’s ruling. We are currently reviewing the detail and considering our next steps, including the option of appeal.’

Image description: Christ Church College and Christ Church Meadows.

Image Credits: Margolum via Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0.)