Oxford professor claims he should not be forced to retire because his research is 'blossoming'

Camilla Turner
Prof Ewart claims that his “dismissal” was unfair and amounted to age discrimination

An Oxford professor has claimed that his university should not have forced him to retire because his research is only just “blossoming”.

Prof Paul Ewart, the former head of atomic and laser physics at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory, claims that he was unfairly pushed out before his 70th birthday.

He is the latest academic to challenge the university’s Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) policy, which was introduced in 2017 to ensure that older professors retire and make way for a new generation of younger and more ethnically diverse scholars. 

Prof Ewart, who worked at Oxford for 38 years until September 2017, claims that his “dismissal” was unfair and amounted to age discrimination.

He argues that his research was “blossoming” during his final two years, in which he published 15 papers and won leading roles in projects to create ultra-efficient engines, according to the Times Higher Education magazine.

Prof Ewart says he should be reinstated as a senior lecturer so he can continue on projects which will have “great importance for society, particularly in making a contribution to solving the problem of climate change and environmental pollution being driven by emissions from combustion”.

He is the second Oxford professor to challenge the university’s retirement policy. Prof John Pitcher, a leading Shakespeare scholar and fellow at St John’s College at Oxford, claimed that he had been unfairly pushed out at age 67 to make way for younger and more ethnically diverse academics.

He sued the College and university for age discrimination and unfair dismissal, claiming loss of earnings of £100,000 - but both claims were dismissed at an employment tribunal earlier this year.  The default retirement age of 65 was axed by the Government in 2011 but an employer can set its own compulsory retirement age if it is in the interests of the institution.

Oxford has said that its retirement age for senior academics - which was initially 67 and has now been lifted to 68 - is aimed at promoting “inter-generational fairness and improvements in diversity”.

Academics can apply to the university to work beyond this in “exceptional circumstances”, for example, to complete a particular project or duty.  

Oxford carried out an equality impact assessment before bringing in the EJRA in 2011, which found that enforcing a retirement age would cut down the number of old, white and male staff and boost the number of young, female and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) academics.

Of the 221 academics due to reach the self-imposed retirement age of 67 in 2011-17, 84 per cent were male, the assessment found, and there was a “clear pattern” of greater ethnic diversity in younger age groups.