A Nobel Prize winner is leading a Cambridge revolt over a rule that forces academics to retire at 67 despite being in the “prime” of their lives.
Prof Didier Queloz was among 120 academics who wrote to Cambridge’s vice-chancellor on Nov 7 demanding a mandatory retirement rule be scrapped before the end of the 2024 Easter term.
The 57-year-old, who won the Nobel Prize in 2019 for the first discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star, faces forced retirement in 10 years under the university’s Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) rule, which is set at 67.
The professors urged Prof Debbie Prentice to abolish the rule, saying it “discriminates” against senior academics who are at “the top of their game”.
The letter said the rule “punishes successful senior academics” and makes “no business sense” as it deprives Cambridge of world-leading professors who attract millions of pounds in grant funding.
As morally offensive as racism
“EJRA creates a brain drain of academic talent from Cambridge as senior academics are forced to leave Cambridge for posts elsewhere if they want to stay active in research,” the academics said.
“EJRA directly causes stress and poor mental health among its top academics as they face being made unemployed at age 67 and are rendered ineffective from age 63 when they are not allowed to apply for grants.”
It went on to say: “We who feel proud of Cambridge’s academic excellence also feel ashamed that it blatantly discriminates in terms of ageism as this is as morally offensive as racism, sexism, ableism, etc. As such it is a reputational risk for Cambridge.”
They demanded an end to the policy and the university’s scrutiny board has requested it be reviewed in 2024.
The university will now decide whether to have a vote on scrapping it altogether on Monday, the Telegraph understands.
Oxford and Cambridge are the only universities in Britain to operate an EJRA and have done so since 2011, when Britain’s default retirement age of 65 was abolished.
Oxford’s EJRA is set at 69 and was increased from 68 in October, following a policy review in October 2022.
Policy could be unlawful
Four Oxford professors, sacked aged 68, had launched a discrimination claim under the Equality Act a month previously, with judges ruling in their favour in March 2023.
It is understood that Cambridge terminates between 30 and 35 members of staff who have reached the age of 67 every September, preventing many of them from applying for research grants or taking on new doctoral students in the preceding years.
The late Lord Igor Judge, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, warned earlier in 2023 that the policy was potentially unlawful and could result in “massive” reputational damage for the university.
Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, was let go after he turned 67 in the most recent round of aged-based redundancies on Sept 30, despite still being in “full flow”.
“There are those of us whose work is our mission, our function in life, our purpose. To cut somebody off in their prime at 67 in simple cruelty,” he told the Telegraph, adding that the age “isn’t old nowadays”.
“I am determined to keep on working,” he said. “I must have produced a dozen research papers last year. I go to the gym occasionally, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink too much and I cycle a bit. I am still in full flow.”
He said that he had been moved onto a two-year contract and now only worked at Cambridge for one day a week. He retained a post at the University of Edinburgh and worked as a business consultant the rest of the time.
Cambridge’s rules allow for academics to take “flexible retirement” at 67 and carry on working at reduced hours. Under exceptional circumstances, it may delay retirement under EJRA for some staff for a limited time.
Prof Anderson said Cambridge had “hired a number of top mid-career people in their 50s who now find to their horror that a few years after joining the university they can no longer get research grants”.
He added: Cambridge is a significantly less attractive place to work than UCL or Manchester.”
Employment tribunal claims
When Cambridge introduced its EJRA policy in 2011 it said it would help the career progression of younger staff, promote innovation among the workforce and balance the distribution of posts between generations of academics, as well as help meet ethnic and gender diversity targets.
The policies have formed the basis of several employment tribunal claims.
Lord Judge, the university’s former Commissary, who died in November, did not have the power to grant an application to review the rules brought by Prof Anderson in the summer, but said that the policy could result in wrongful dismissals.
“Beyond injustice to individuals, the reputational damage [of a court ruling against the EJRA] would indeed be massive,” he said.
A Cambridge spokesman said: “The university has established a review group to consider whether its employer-justified retirement age should remain, be abolished or be updated, and the University Council will shortly receive an update on its work.
“It is aware of the considerable interest that all staff, not just those who are approaching retirement, have on this matter and has been consulting widely.
“The review group is aiming to complete this work in time for the 2024 cohort of retirees to know where they stand and the council will be considering the feasibility of this timetable later this term.”