Pitcher v University of Oxford

The result of an employment tribunal has found that Oxford University's retirement age is not discriminatory.

A former academic at the university, English Professor John Pitcher, was forced to retire at age 67. He claimed that the university's Employer-Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) policy was discriminatory and made a claim for unfair dismissal and age discrimination

However, a judge recently found that the policy was justified as it exists to improve diversity and career progression.

The policy was first introduced in 2011, when the government created legislated that prevents employers from forcing staff to retire at age 65.

At the time, the university decided to maintain a retirement age for academic staff so that the institution could “sustain excellence in teaching, research and administration and to maintain and develop its historical position as a world-class university”.

The aim of the policy, according to the university, is to “[promote] intergenerational 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”.

Professor Pitcher was asked to retire in 2014, when the retirement age at Oxford University was 67, but it has since been amended so that staff are now required to retire the September before their 69th birthday.

Some staff may be allowed to work longer in exceptional circumstances, such as completing research they have yet to finish. However, Professor Pitcher's request to continue working until 2020 was not granted because it did not fulfil the EJRA policy criteria.

Professor Pitcher's argument before an employment tribunal was that the policy is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 and discriminatory based on age.

However, the judge, Stephen Bedeau, found that the policy had a legitimate reason for its age-based rules. A social policy aim allows for such circumstances.

The finding of the judgment was that: “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 in response to the judgment: “The university notes this ruling and welcomes the judge’s comments in support of its Employer-Justified Retirement Age policy and procedure.”

Age discrimination is a problem in many industries and workplaces. However, policies such as the one at Oxford University are not necessarily discriminatory if they have a legitimate reason for existing.

It is vital that before introducing any policy in the workplace, you have taken expert employment law advice by fully qualified employment lawyers.

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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