Oxford University’s retirement age not discriminatory, tribunal finds

St John's College at Oxford.
Image: Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images

A former Oxford University academic who was forced to retire at 67 has lost his claim for unfair dismissal and age discrimination, with a judge finding the policy exists to improve career progression and diversity.

Professor John Pitcher, who taught English at St John’s College in Oxford, claimed that the university’s Employer-Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) policy was discriminatory.

Introduced in 2011 after the government brought in legislation preventing employers from forcing staff to take compulsory retirement at 65 years of age, the university agreed to maintain a retirement age for academic staff in order to “sustain excellence in teaching, research and administration and to maintain and develop its historical position as a world-class university”.

At the time Prof Pitcher was asked to retire in 2014, the university required academics to retire at 67. However, since 2017 staff must retire the September preceding their 69th birthday.

Staff who reach this age have the option of applying to work beyond this date in exceptional circumstances, such as completing research they are working on, but Prof Pitcher’s request to continue working until 2020 was denied as it did not meet the criteria of the EJRA policy.

In his case before an employment tribunal, Prof Pitcher argued that the policy is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. However, employment judge Stephen Bedeau found that a social policy aim, like the one adopted by the university, was legitimate.

The university said the policy hoped to “[promote] inter-generational fairness and [maintain] opportunities for career progression for those at particular stages of a career”. It said this would “refresh the academic research and other professional workforce and to enable them to maintain the University’s position on the international stage”.

The judgment says: “The University was seeking, in 2011, to make available opportunities for women, younger academic staff, those of a different race, and those with disabilities. For too long senior positions have been held by those who did not reflect these groups.

“The exceptions policy resulted in high retention of those making applications. This extended the tenure of the more senior staff who are the least diverse as they were mainly white and male. In 2015 the University revised the policy to enable it to create more vacancies to facilitate this aim.

“We have come to the conclusion that, on balance, the EJRA’s extension provisions are a necessary and appropriate means of achieving this legitimate aim.”

An Oxford University spokesperson said: “The university notes this ruling and welcomes the judge’s comments in support of its Employer-Justified Retirement Age policy and procedure.”

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