Fewer academics are gaining their first job at a university by the age of 30, while the number of older scholars has increased sharply.
These are among the findings of a report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on the changing profile of people working in the sector over the past 15 years. The study found that the number of academics under 30 at English universities declined from 12,205 in 1995-6 to 10,335 in 2010-11 despite overall staff levels growing by almost a third.
Overall, the proportion of academics under 30 fell from 14 percent to 8 percent in that 15-year period, while the proportion of over-60s within the academy rose from 5 percent to 9 percent. In terms of total numbers, the population of academics aged 60 or older almost tripled – rising from 3,955 in 1995-6 to 11,160 in 2010‑11.
Most of those past the age of 60 (62 percent) worked full-time, while 26 percent were part-time and 12 percent were doing very low levels of academic activity, the report said.
Geoff Whitty, the former director of the Institute of Education of the University of London, said the changing age profile of the academy raised serious questions about the recruitment of “new blood” into the sector.
Last year’s abolition of the default retirement age, coupled with increased financial worries caused by the recession, were likely to prompt academics to work longer, exacerbating the trend, said Whitty, now professor of public sector policy and management at the University of Bath. "I think there will be a temptation for academics to stay on because they can," he said. "This will create problems in terms of freeing up funds to employ new blood.”
However, Whitty said the report, published last month, covered "a time when funding for universities increased significantly."
"You had the best of both worlds – an increase in people staying on longer but many more new people coming in," he said.
He suggested that universities needed to create more "exit routes" for older academics wishing to retire but keen to remain within the academic fold.
Establishing a "senior college" similar to the one created by the University of Toronto would allow retired academics to retain an "emeritus" status within an institution and pursue research interests, according to Whitty.
"If you don’t reach reader or professor – and most academics don't – then you can’t become an emeritus professor. You need something similar for other retired staff," he said.
Whitty added that it was important to avoid situations such as the "horror stories" from the United States where eminent professors stay on but are then forced out by "capability procedures."
Michael MacNeil, head of higher education at the University and College Union, said changes to pensions would force many academics to work for longer. "I welcome the scrapping of the default retirement age, but we need to ensure that there are planned and supportive methods to assist staff," he said.
MacNeil added that it was also necessary to create more "mechanisms" to allow early-career academics into the profession that did not simply rely on "low pay, job insecurity and worse terms and conditions."