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Oxford professors win age discrimination case against university

Oxford University was wrong to force academics to retire because they turned 68 - Getty Images
Oxford University was wrong to force academics to retire because they turned 68 - Getty Images

Oxford University was wrong to force academics to retire because they turned 68, an employment tribunal has found.

Four professors who brought a claim against the university lost their jobs owing to the university’s retirement policy.

However, an employment tribunal found that the university’s enforced retirement age cannot be justified under the Equality Act.

The tribunal found that the policy “means that an individual is dismissed on attainment of a particular age.”

“That is, on the face of it, about the most extreme discriminatory impact possible in the realms of employment,” it stated.

The claimants included Philip Candelas, former Rouse Ball Chair of mathematical physics; Duncan Snidal, a former professor in international relations; Bent Flyvbjerg, a former professor in the Said Business School and Nicholas Field-Johnson, former head of development for the department of continuing education, Times Higher Education reported.

They said that they were dismissed at the peaks of their careers, when they still had much to offer the university and the option of becoming an emeritus professor or similar was “not comparable to their previous employment”, according to the education news website.

Oxford University is reviewing the tribunal ruling and could appeal.

The university’s retirement policy, known as the “Employer Justified Retirement Age” (EJRA), was first introduced in 2011, after the default retirement age was abolished in the UK.

Since then, UK employers have not been able to force workers to retire, unless they can objectively justify it.

One of the stated aims of the policy is to promote “equality and diversity, noting that recent recruits are more diverse than the composition of the existing workforce, especially amongst the older age groups.”

However, the tribunal found that policy’s contribution to promoting equality and diversity is “very limited”.

‘Difficult to lawfully retire employees’

Oxford also found that the policy was designed to create vacancies. However, the tribunal found that the university had not made any attempt to measure the impact of the policy on vacancy creation.

Simon Henthorn, partner and head of education at Doyle Clayton, which advised three of the professors, said: “In our experience it is difficult for employers to lawfully retire employees. This was certainly the case in this matter, and we are delighted that the Employment Tribunal has ruled in the Professors’ favour.”

Cambridge and St Andrews both have similar retirement policies, which could be threatened by the tribunal’s findings.

Under Oxford’s existing retirement policy, academics are able to apply to extend their employment at the age of 68, but only if they meet certain criteria, including in most cases relinquishing their existing role and being able to fully fund their continuing employment.

The university has previously been subject to age discrimination claims.

In 2020, Prof Paul Ewart, the former head of atomic and laser physics, successfully won a discrimination claim against the university for forcing him out because of his age. He was awarded £30,000 in compensation and was re-employed by the university.

However, he failed in his attempt to have the tribunal order Oxford to abolish its retirement policy. In another case that year, Prof John Pitcher, a leading Shakespeare scholar and fellow at St John’s College at Oxford, was unsuccessful in his discrimination claim after he said that he had been unfairly pushed out at age 67 to make way for younger and more ethnically diverse academics. An employment tribunal ruled that his dismissal was fair.

A spokesperson for Oxford University said: “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.”