We were discussing the retirement age. Many of my colleagues said that of course existing interests must be preserved, but they had noticed that some of their colleagues had been past their prime by the time they reached 67, and that it would be a good thing if in future dons were retired at 65. I agreed, but pointed out that the argument went further. Quite a few of us were already deteriorating before they were 65. Nor was it clear that 60 was the watershed. One could think of people who had finished their creative work by the time they were 55, indeed, by the time they were fifty. In fact some of us were already bores in our forties, and in so far as a large part of our raison d'etre was to teach the young, our ability to relate to them began to diminish in our thirties. The temperature dropped five degree with each five years, and in chilly silence the College moved on to Next Business.
But the problem remains, indeed, is being exacerbated by the Government's policies. More and more we are relying on short-term appointments with meagre stipends to provide tutorial teaching, and the mechanics of performance-related pay inevitably skews the balance in favour of the old and against the young. Performance- related pay may work in some business enterprises: a double-glazing business can measure the performance of its salesmen moderately well by seeing how many contracts each secures. There is no comparable way of assessing academic merit rapidly or reliably. If a colleague writes a book, it may be months or years before I get round to reading it, and longer still before it is discussed with other colleagues, and holes in arguments pointed out or stopped up. And the book itself emerges into public view long after the original inspiration took place---my next book to be published is an elaboration of a talk I gave to a group of philosophers that used to meet in the 1960s: it is not that I have been idle since then, but it is inordinately difficult to find time to polish rough-hewn thoughts into readable prose.
The general demerits of performance-related pay are familiar enough---the unreliability of assessments of merit, and the waste of resources in trying to make them---but we have not sufficiently realised its unfairness to the young. At the time when they are often out- performing the rest of us, they are excluded from consideration. The fundamental activity of the university is thinking, but it is only slowly and fitfully that thinking is congealed into publicly accessible thoughts. The intense arguments in the half hour after the seminar and before hall, the afternoon spent with the graduate student, the proof of a lemma vital for a colleague's theorem thought up over a game of chess in the Mathematical Institute, the unlikely reference vouchsafed during lab tea, the long country walk exploring a new interpretation of an old master--- these are pre-eminently the activities of the young, but none register unless in the fullness of time they result in a publication. True, even in old age one seeks to continue in the ways of one's youth, but as one concentrates on getting one piece of work finished, one has to leave intriguing by-ways unexplored, and resolutely refuse to move on yet to fresh pastures. I am more disciplined, more concentrated in my thinking now than I was when I was young, but for that very reason less wide- ranging, less sparky, less ebullient. I have gained in competence, but lost in fizz.
Does fizz matter? I think it does. We do not need to have universities in order to encourage people to do well tasks that other people can approve and assess: what is special to universities is that they are places where people are able to think things that others had not thought of before. We damage ourselves if we pressure the young to publish what they hope will be approved-of works in order to get a living wage, we are acting contrary to our most important values if we stick with a pay scale that rewards academics less for doing what is most important than for the later residue of such activities.
Merit is not a conceptually inappropriate basis for academic stipends: the objections are practical, the difficulty and unreliability of assessment, and the distorting effect it has on academic life. But if we were to base pay on merit, then we should have to pay young dons very much more, and perhaps---though I should not like it myself---old ones rather less. During the first five years, as he learns on the job, he should rise very rapidly, and then gradually tail off, as he becomes older and mellower. Of course, it would be different for different disciplines, and ought to be different for different dons within the same discipline, and would be impossible to determine fairly for each individual. Also and importantly, age-related need suggests a different distribution, since a don has most mouths to feed in his forties. But whatever bases of allocation we adopt, it is incontrovertible that we are at present grossly exploiting the young academics in their twenties and early thirties.
It is not a new phenomenon, though it has worsened in recent years. But although the oldies in oxford have always hung on to the available wealth, it is noteworthy that power has tended to flow in the other direction. It has, contrary to the intention of the Franks Commission, seeped from Hebdomadal Council, men in their fifties and sixties who discuss who should be given honorary degrees, to the General Board, energetic and effective upstarts in their forties who decide where the money actually goes. Long ago, I suppose, the Students of Christ Church really were students, studying and teaching while waiting for preferment. Sometimes when I imagine myself writing the history of Oxford in the twenty second century, I make the MCRs the effective bodies in colleges, gradually easing the SCRs out of their traditional privileges and perks.Return to home page