This issue has been on my mind for two weeks or so, so I thought I’d better blog about it. On 13th August, Sally Feldman, Senior Fellow in Creative Industries at the University of Westminster, wrote an opinion piece for the Times Higher entitled “It’s not fair to go on forever”. As the title suggests, Feldman is concerned that since the relaxing of compulsory retirement rules in the UK, some academics may wish to prolong their careers after the age of sixty-five. This has been the case in the US since 1994, and Feldman identifies several cases of ‘forever professors’ bonded to their faculty offices because of fear of retirement, or lack of space at home to store books. Feldman claims that one third of academics in the US are now over the age of sixty, and I don’t doubt it – I’m married to one. Meanwhile, she points to a logjam of newly-minted PhDs clamoring for those jobs that the tenured seniors are unwilling to relinquish. This is increasingly likely to be the situation in the UK, she predicts.
I have to say, I don’t believe this will be the case, and even if it were to happen, I don’t support the same kind of cull that Feldman seems to wish for. I outline some humane alternatives at the end of this piece.
In the US, college life has been, until recently, far more comfortable than it has been in the UK for quite some time. Academics probably have more autonomy over what they teach, how they teach it, and at what times they prefer to teach. Expectations of research and scholarship echo more congenial times, and it is assumed that these endeavours primarily serve the needs of the scholar, rather than the financial and league table ambitions of the university. There is no REF (Research Excellence Framework), or TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework). There is no QAA, though most US colleges and universities are taking baby steps towards what they call “assessment”. Significantly, there is little in the way of ‘performance management’, as academics are considered to be self-managing professionals. Furthermore, as my spouse has just reminded me, some of those over-60s are still working because there is no forgiveness of student loans, which continue to be deducted, even from the state pension. Just wait until BIS gets hold of that idea.
But in the UK, it is, of course, precisely the constant conveyor belt of audit, accountability, ranking and standardization which is driving older workers out of university posts. I see no signs of ‘forever professors’, but I am, instead, saddened by the loss of ‘forgotten professors’. This is a lament for friends whose careers have been foreshortened and uncelebrated – victims of what Ros Gill calls the ‘hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia’.
I’m appalled that so many of my retired friends in the UK have left without the courtesy of a leaving party or gift. Sometimes their departure is not even announced at all, and colleagues are left wondering why they haven’t seen so-and-so in a while. To university management, they are expendable ex-employees who are ‘no longer adding value’. One former colleague who wished to extend his service, was asked to put forward a ‘business plan’. One assumes that grant income was a pre-requisite, in an era where professors are expected to earn their own salaries. This incident represents a refusal to acknowledge that an academic is more than an employee of X or Y university; they are members of a community of scholars which ranges beyond that institution. We count our colleagues over continents, not cubicles. Feldman is right to note that our identities are rooted in our contributions to a discipline, as well as to a university, but let’s recognize that to be ejected from that entails a severing of collegial bonds and personal esteem. This is not helped by an unsympathetic HR machine which rescinds your email account and parking privileges the day you retire. One retiree, returning to clear out his office, found himself unable to drive onto campus at all, as his swipe card had already been cancelled. It is ironic, that university administrators who often view themselves as defenders of ‘civility codes’ can fail to recognize when they fall short in this area.
Feldman foregrounds the plight of the next generation of scholars, apparently kept out of careers by the tenacious and tenured. However, her assumption that vacated posts will be replaced by new full time academics is not a well-founded one. Those retirees who opt to take up offers of casual teaching roles will often meet the same young PhDs they thought they had stepped aside for. In the US, 50-75% of faculty are ‘adjuncts’, part-timers, often with PhDs. University managers know that there is a steady supply of hopeful scholars who form a convenient, flexible, acquiescent workforce.
And then there’s the issue of legacy. Many older scholars spend their entire careers building up courses, modules, degree and research programs, only to see these eviscerated without a senior academic protector. Some only stay on to fight the administration in defence of their academic endowments. You will indeed hear these people venting their spleen about universities which seem to be at war with the more critical disciplines in the humanities. It is not, Dr Feldman, because they hate their jobs, rather the opposite. They may, though, hate the finacialized and marketized context in which they are currently asked to perform them, and wish for better conditions to hand down to those young PhDs. This is a noble aspiration, and there should be more room for these repositories of institutional memory and combative example.
Feldman does make some suggestions for a more humane way forward for academics after retirement. Here are some more:
- Hold a retirement party and make sure someone makes a speech celebrating the person’s career. And get HR to cough up a decent amount for the gift pot.
- Don’t cancel their email account, unless they request that. It helps to stay in touch, at least for a few years.
- Invite retirees to talks and events within their area of interest, and to retirements and inaugurals in the department.
- Invite retirees to speak on their research, or deliver one-off lectures to undergraduates and postgraduates.
- Invite retirees to continue PhD supervisions.
Most importantly, I would like to see universities – managers and academics – re-cast retirees as an asset, not a liability. Please let us treat older workers as we ourselves one day would hope to be treated.