A fortnight ago, Prof Paul Ewart reported for his first day back at work at Oxford University’s physics department: attending a Covid-19 safety briefing in a lecture hall at the world-famous Clarendon Laboratory on Parks Road and receiving warm, if socially distanced, greetings from colleagues.
It was something of a second coming for the 72-year-old from Belfast who started working there more than four decades ago. For the past three years, the former head of atomic and laser physics has been on an enforced leave of absence following what a landmark tribunal has now ruled was an illegal decision to force him to retire.
This week, it was announced that the university has been forced to pay him three years’ of lost earnings, plus £30,000 in compensation, and reinstate him as a senior researcher. The so-called “remedy judgment” by the employment tribunal marks a victory for Prof Ewart, who sued the university for age discrimination and unfair dismissal when his contract was not renewed in 2017.
Bruised after years of legal battles – which have cost him tens of thousands of pounds he will not recoup, and taken a toll on his physical health – he knows the fight is not over. The university has already lodged an appeal, which will be heard in the spring. “The university won’t give up,” he says. “They will just keep appealing because they can outspend anybody.”
The dispute is centred around a controversial policy called the Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA). In 2011, when the UK’s statutory default retirement age of 65 was abolished, Oxford introduced the rule forcing senior staff to retire before they turn 69 in the hope that it would encourage the recruitment of younger and more diverse members of staff. Cambridge and St Andrew’s universities operate a similar policy.
There have been notable high-profile casualties: Prof John Pitcher, a leading Shakespeare scholar and fellow at St John’s College, Oxford, has been involved in a similar legal wrangle, while Peter Edwards, a professor of inorganic chemistry, also took his case to tribunal. At a conservative estimate, Prof Ewart says, the university has so far spent more than £1 million in legal fees contesting the various claims.
“I’m doing this because I think it’s the right thing to do,” he adds when we meet at his Oxford home. “I don’t think it’s right that a powerful institution can do something that is unlawful and get away with it. It is a policy that inflicts serious harm on people.”
In light of the looming jobs crisis in the fallout from Covid-19, his case has taken on greater resonance. The pursuit of diversity, he argues, must include an older workforce. “Older people want to work because it gives life fulfilment, meaning and purpose and we contribute experience,” he says. “Having that balance in the workplace is also important.”
When he first arrived among Oxford’s dreaming spires as a young researcher in 1979, he had to “pinch himself” it was real. He was, after all, the first person in his extended family to have gone to university. His parents left school at 14 and his mother worked at the Belfast rope works. His father attended night school and became an engineer and local government officer. Ewart undertook a physics degree and PHD at Queen’s University in Belfast, where he met his wife, Marlene, at the Christian Union. He says his faith, and a belief in fairness, motivated him to take on the university. The couple married in 1972 and moved to Imperial College London the following year where he had been offered a job. They have two grown-up children and five grandchildren. Prof Ewart says the support of family and colleagues has helped him through. He has received hundreds of emails of support from around the world, including Thailand, Canada and even Yemen.
“I’ve lost a lot of sleep and it has taken its toll,” he says. “There have been times when the adrenalin has affected my heart rate and the doctor traced it to the stress.” His branch of expertise straddles quantum and classical physics and he has made some significant discoveries. He invented a technique using a laser to measure precise temperature in extreme heat, which has been adopted by the automotive industry to improve the efficiency of combustion engines.
Prior to losing his job he was leading a team that invented a technique using a single laser to measure multiple gases simultaneously – something of vital importance to helping understand the scope and scale of climate change. Talks were ongoing with the Chinese government to develop the process, but when he was forced to retire that fell apart. “It was very frustrating to see that research come to an end,” he says. He cites research by Edwards, who is fighting to continue his work on converting plastic waste into hydrogen.
The idea, rather than the age of the person behind it, is what he says should matter most. He shows me a recent research paper published in the journal Science, which concludes that the highest-impact work conducted by scientists occurs at random intervals in their career, rather than trailing off.
“I had new ideas I wanted to work on but essentially the university said we are not interested in new ideas from older people,” he says. “So it doesn’t matter what the idea is. The age discrimination is blatant.”
As a scientist he has run the numbers on Oxford’s claims that its policy makes a “substantial contribution” to increasing diversity. After conducting research at his own expense he claims the data shows the policy has led to only two to four per cent more job opportunities. “A trivial effect,” the tribunal ruled. That small percentage of young people will go on to find other jobs, he argues, but for the older academics forced into retirement, opportunities to continue their work will not be the same.
Society has been steadily embracing an older workforce. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics predicted that the over-65s will add more than 280,000 workers to the economy in the next 10 years. Prof Ewart blames Oxford’s intransigence on exceptionalism and inherent conservatism. He points to the fact that the university was among the last to permit women to take degrees (in 1920). He estimates there are around 4,000 academics subject to the retirement rule and while only a few will be forced to leave against their will, the university will be braced for further cycles of legal disputes should they persist.
In a statement to The Telegraph, the university pointed to an earlier tribunal hearing into a separate case “but of equal legal weighting”, which ruled in favour of the Oxford EJRA. A spokesman said: “The university has decided that it does not accept the more recent tribunal’s hearing and will be appealing against it. The EJRA policy remains in place and will continue to be applied as normal.”
Prof Ewart cites various colleagues who have left Oxford rather than face the inevitable axe. It is a bitter irony, he says, that in turning its back on its older workforce, the university is falling short of the very same progressive values it claims to espouse.