Our latest campaign is against the university's forced retirement policy. At present, academics are sacked at the end of the academic year in which we turn 67, and the same treatment is meted out to "academic-related" staff such as computer officers. What's more, academics are not allowed to apply for grants or research contracts that would run past our retirement date. So Cambridge sacks 30-35 people at the end of September every year, many of whom are reluctant to go. It also prevents many of its high achievers from raising money that would pay the stipends of PhD students and postdocs, damaging the careers of younger researchers too. This is not just commercially stupid, but unlawful age discrimination. It has to stop.

On November 27th, the University Council was asked to decide whether we'll be allowed to vote to abolish the forced retirement policy this academic year or next. 120 professors signed a letter to the Vice-Chancellor demanding an end to foot-dragging and a vote this year (Cambridge News Varsity Daily Telegraph Times Higher). The Council's answer can be seen as a glass half-full ("The Council and the Board wish the review outcome to be known in sufficient time for any changes it recommends to be capable of implementation from 1 October 2024") or a glass half-empty: will this really be in time to save people due to be forced to retire on September 30?

The story so far...

In 2010, the Equality Act outlawed discrimination on the grounds of a protected characteristic such as age, disability, race, sex, religious belief or sexual orientation, except as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. This opened the door to an "Employer Justified Retirement Age" or EJRA which was intended for firms like airlines which sack pilots at 60, when they lose their airline transport pilots' licenses.

Oxford and Cambridge were the only universities in England to bring in an EJRA for academic staff. Our scheme was intended by the then Registrary as a stop-gap while the university thought about bringing in a performance management system; academics rejected that, but the EJRA stuck. It was copied by Oxford and justified at both places with claims that it would increase gender equality, promote inter-generational fairness, produce career opportunities for younger academics and improve the age structure of the workforce. Cambridge added innovation and academic freedom to the arguments, claiming that without EJRA we'd need a career-long performance management system. After a consultation paper in May 2011 and a Report in December 2011, there was a Discussion in January 2012 after which we voted for the policy.

When EJRA was reviewed in 2016, we were assured that academics who wanted to stay on – and could raise money to pay their salaries – would be able to continue as contract staff. However, academics then started finding that we were not allowed to apply for research grants or contracts that would run past our scheduled retirement date. We now understand that the university obtained a legal opinion to the effect that EJRA was legally dubious and the fewer exceptions were allowed, the easier it might be to defend.

In Oxford, the physics professor Paul Ewart took a case to the Employment Tribunal, winning compensation and an order for reinstatement. His victory was based on a statistical analysis which compared both Oxford and Cambridge with 21 other Russell Group universities. It concluded that the data showed no evidence of any benefit from forced retirement – and on gender equality, Oxford and Cambridge had actually done worse. Oxford reacted to the loss by restricting forced retirement to senior professors and raising the age to 70. Cambridge clearly must do something; but what should we do?

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on the basis of any of nine protected characteristics: age; gender reassignment; being married or in a civil partnership; being pregnant or on maternity leave; disability; race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation. Cambridge now speaks out against discrimination on the basis of eight out of these characteristics, but embarrassingly still discriminates against its employees on the basis of one of them, namely age. This discrimination also places us at a competitive disadvantage as we lose many of our highest income and research generators.

I therefore raised the issue at the University All-Hands Meeting in November 2022 and we were told it would be reviewed. (For people with a Cambridge logon, the recording is here.) I then stated the case for reform briefly in comments in the Regent House the following day. A survey of 50 random professors revealed that about 70% want to abolish EJRA entirely while about a quarter want to reform it, perhaps by raising the age to 75 in line with the Universities Superannuation Scheme and the judiciary. Only two respondents were content with the current state of affairs.

We therefore called for a Discussion of a Topic of Concern in the Regent House in January 2023, so that the review could hear the widest possible range of voices and get democratic input at an early stage. The transcript of the Discussion appeared in the Reporter v 6685, 1 Feb 2023, at pages 304-318.

The university Council's entirely predictable response was to set up a committee to produce a Report this academic year, after which we would be able to vote to amend the policy in the 2023-24 academic year. Given that the courts have now had their say, sacking more people in September 2023 was simply illegal.

In March 2023, the Employment Tribunal found that Oxford's forced retirement policy is unlawful (press). Cambridge's policy is almost identical, as they copied ours. In June 2023 the Commissary – the university's internal supreme court – warned of massive reputational damage if the University were to wrongfully dismiss staff in September 2023. This is at the end of a decision in which he concludes that he unfortunately does not have the jurisdiction to intervene. (Our claim is here, the university's response here and here, and our reply here.) The University sacked about thirty of us anyway. We are taking action at the Employment Tribunal for reinstatement.

Ross Anderson

For more on the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms, see our 2020 web page on academic freedom; our 2018 web page on votes for research staff; our 2007-10 web page which evolved through various governance tussles; our campaign web page on the IP issue; our 2003-7 web page; and our page on the IP ballot result.

Show your support by linking to us at: http://www.freecambridge.org