Don’t call me a job blocker. We can’t all afford to retire | Letters

Mary Beard’s experience as a longtime Cambridge academic with an outstanding post‑retirement career is not the norm (Is Cambridge University right to enforce a retirement age? I think so – who wants to be a ‘job blocker’?, 29 June). Here is the reality: I moved to Cambridge 10 years ago as a mid-career academic. The cost of housing had exploded. I will be mortgaged until retirement. Meanwhile, our pension system has been downgraded, leaving many of us anxious about the state of our finances if we do not have any flexibility about when to take retirement. (I should note that when this downgrade was brought in, the head of Universities UK told us that we should expect to have to work longer. Cambridge does not give us this option.)

In my department, we have a large number of open positions. As a consequence, we are extremely understaffed and begging retired faculty to help with teaching. We recruit internationally, competing with top departments in the US and elsewhere; forced retirement has no effect on the job prospects of junior Cambridge academics.

It is true that there are serious issues about the structure of academic employment for young researchers. Firing a handful of academics annually at one university at an arbitrarily chosen age isn’t going to solve this problem.
Prof Mark Gross
Cambridge

Mary Beard’s experience of how academic progression works is not that of many female academics in universities less illustrious than Oxbridge. In my case, as with many colleagues, I gained my PhD as a mature student from a widening-participation background. If I retire before the age of 77, I will not have sufficient income to live on, as I won’t have built up enough of a pension – in large part because of changes enforced on academics by our employers.

I hope other universities do not adopt this measure, which they will certainly find attractive, as junior staff are much cheaper than older colleagues. I feel somewhat let down that a woman as eminent as Prof Beard can suggest something that would be harmful to many women elsewhere in academia – I know three other colleagues who have deferred retirement for exactly the reason I need to.
Dr Carolyn Downs
Morecambe, Lancashire

Mary Beard explained eloquently why she did not want to be a “job blocker”. However, she retired in the sure and certain knowledge that there would be numerous Roman and classical art historians in the faculty who could continue to teach these subjects. Those of us in more provincial, more cash-strapped universities have no such assurance. When colleagues retire, we often find that the colleague’s field (especially if that field is in the humanities) is also retired by university management. Faced with a choice between cutting subjects and cutting bureaucracy, vice-chancellors often prefer the former (as the debacle over archaeology at Sheffield demonstrates).

Those of use in “niche” subjects (mine is classical archaeology) are often motivated by the desire that their field also carries on in areas of the UK well outside the south-east of England. We do not want 30-plus years of building up a field to be unceremoniously cut, and future students to be deprived of the opportunity to pursue a broad interest in the ancient world.
James Whitley
Cardiff

Mary Beard writes: “Institutions and industries must find creative ways to engage with retirees”. Fortunately, there is a simple solution. Since the Covid years several new organisations have emerged offering short courses via Zoom to graduate students. I am sure I am not the only octogenarian academic regularly teaching such courses – fulfilling for young and old alike.
Emeritus professor David Silverman
Edgware, London

Mary Beard writes of a retired academic colleague who found that their pigeonhole had been removed within a day of their departure. When I left the BBC in my mid‑60s (my decision, not theirs), my ID card was disabled so rapidly that I had the greatest difficulty re-entering Broadcasting House to attend my own farewell party.
Robin Lustig
London

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