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Unfair dismissal – Oxford University Professor wins case

Oxford University was found to have acted unlawfully when they dismissed 69-year old Professor Paul Ewart, an employment tribunal has found.

In a bid to bring younger and more diverse staff into the university, Professor Paul Ewart was dismissed in September 2017. Mr Ewart was head of atomic and laser physics at the university. When the university introduced its Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) policy the retirement age changed from 67 to 68 years and he was dismissed.

Mr Ewart is not the only professor to have challenged the university over the retirement policy. He explained that his research was far to important for him to retire.

In May 2019 an employment tribunal ruled against Professor John Pitcher who claimed that his retirement was unlawful. The judge found the university policy to be justified because it served a purpose. This was to provide a route up the career ladder for younger academics who came from more diverse backgrounds.

Professor Pitcher accepted that there was a case for equality and diversity. He was from a working-class background and appreciated the policy although he felt he had been discriminated against.

Professor Ewart had worked for the university for 38 years until September 2017 when he was dismissed. He explained to the tribunal that his research had ‘blossomed’ in the final years of his employment. During that time, he published 15 papers. He also took on leading roles in the design of ultra-efficient engines.

Professor Ewart’s projects included work on three-way catalytic convertors and diesel particulate filters which made exhaust gases harmless. He stated that his work made a great contribution to climate change and environmental pollution due to engine emission combustion.

In some cases, the EJRA allows people to work beyond 69 years of age, although these are exceptional and only normally happen when it is important to finish a project.

Professor Ewart, although no longer an employee at the university, still maintains visitor status and has office facilities at the laboratory.

This is the fourth case regarding retirement and Oxford University which has been brought to a tribunal since the Pension Act 2011. Mr Denis Galligan, in 2014 successfully challenged the retirement age when he was 67. Likewise, Professor Peter Edwards was also allowed to stay on at his job when he was 69.

Oxford University declined to comment because the case is still ongoing.

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