HKU retirement policy needs revising: academics

Academics say rigid rule requiring professors to leave when they reach age 60 is the reason behind university's falling ranking and brain drain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 4:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 11:40am

The University of Hong Kong should revise its retirement policy as it is harming the institution's competitiveness, senior British academics have warned.

The university's policy of forced retirement at age 60 was damaging academics' morale and causing a brain drain, they said, with about 20 scholars having left the institution in recent years because they knew their tenure would not be extended after they reached 60.

Professors at government-funded universities that adhered to the retirement policy could ask to have their contracts extended, but Dr Paul Smethurst, an HKU associate professor of English, said very few professors succeeded in doing so. The arts faculty, for example, decided it would not extend the tenures of any associate professors beyond the age of 60, he said.

Smethurst, 60, who has taught at the university since 1997, said that despite his having secured the School of English's support and getting straight As in his teaching evaluations, the faculty turned down his application to extend his contract last year. He now has to leave HKU in June, he said.

Describing the policy as "illogical", Smethurst said: "The policy might be justified if people were no longer able to carry out their duties … but in a university, it doesn't work like that. If you cut out staff, it hurts the morale. You're … losing senior teachers with many publications, which affects HKU's citations count."

Earlier this month, HKU was ranked the 43rd best university in the world by Times Higher Education. The ranking this year was a significant drop from the 21st place it secured just four years ago. The institution also dropped from being Asia's best university to fourth place this year - behind other universities in Japan, Singapore and Australia.

Smethurst said he feared HKU's international standing would continue to fall unless it extended its compulsory retirement age, like Singapore and Tokyo had done. He plans to move back to Britain next summer, where the universities - like those in Australia and the United States - do not impose a mandatory retirement age for professors.

Dr Sam Winter, an HKU associate professor of education, said he also had his application for contract extension rejected by his faculty last year. He was given only a contract to remain as a part-time teaching fellow, which meant a 40 per cent pay cut and no more fringe benefits and access to research funds.

Winter, 61, who has taught at the university for nearly 30 years, has more than a decade of experience in the fields of sexuality and gender research, rights, values and diversity.

Describing the retirement policy as one of "patronage and payback", he said: "I think [HKU's new vice-chancellor] Professor Peter Mathieson should pay attention to the matter, because … whatever the retirement age, we need a good and professional process. The current retirement policy is harming HKU's opportunity to get to the top - I'm just one example, and I know 20 other strong people who have left the university because of the retirement issue."

A HKU spokeswoman said that while teaching performance was taken into account in deciding whether to extend an academic's tenure, the overriding consideration was whether it was in the university's best interests and if funds were available.

Staff at HKU, Chinese University, Polytechnic University and Baptist University have been urging their institutions to follow the lead of City University, Lingnan University and the University of Science and Technology to extend academics' mandatory retirement age to 65.

But the HKU spokeswoman said it had to balance retaining talent and allowing younger academics prospects for promotion. HKU has 1,083 academics, of which 80 professors and 24 associate or assistant professors are aged 60 and above.

The spokeswoman estimated that in the last three years, about half of the associate and assistant professors' requests for tenure extension after they reached retirement age were approved. This was a lower rate than that for the professors, she said.

The retirement age issue is likely to be raised when the government launches a four-month public consultation on population policy this week. It is expected to discuss whether the civil service should take the lead in revising retirement age upwards to solve the city's problem of a rapidly ageing population.

Additional reporting by Olga Wong