Academic position, age discrimination and social justice

Dedicated to the memory of Jake Dutton, barrister and member of Clerksroom, who represented Babis Magoulas at the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

Dr Babis Magoulas is a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Middlesex University. He received a PhD from Ottawa University, was a Marie-Curie fellow in functional genetics at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and a postdoctoral fellow in molecular neuroendocrinology at the National Institute for Medical Research, prior to accepting a lectureship in neurosurgery at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). The expiration date of his ‘permanent’ employment contract with QMUL had been 30 September 2025.

Dr Magoulas received BBSRC funding and developed therapeutic strategies in conditions where the repair of the nervous system is compromised (see his publication record). However, he was caught up in the 2012 restructuring of the Medical School, on grounds of its projected financial deficit. The impact factor of the journals in which academics had published was applied to evaluate research quality and expensive projects were rewarded: QMUL’s assessment of research activity was likened to selecting athletes by the brand of tracksuit they wear.

Dr Magoulas declined a £20K top-up offer to accept an early pension, maintaining that it would be unfair for him to be singled out, when others who didn’t meet the metrics kept their positions, following case-by-case reevaluations. Seeing a simultaneous call for recruitment of 20 early career researchers (ECRs), Dr Magoulas claimed unfair dismissal and age discrimination. An Employment Tribunal found, however, that the ECRs “were doing work of a particular kind that was different from that of the general academic staff” and therefore a redundancy situation existed since “academic teaching and research” had diminished.

I wonder how ECRs would react to the finding that they do a different kind of work to the general academic staff and that QMUL diminished its academic teaching and research in the Medical School, where they were being recruited.

The employer has a duty to seek redeployment for employees being dismissed on grounds of redundancy. The Tribunal also looked at whether a reasonable search for a suitable alternative employment had taken place. As Dr Magoulas had not been aware of and did not apply to all of the available posts around the time of his dismissal, the Tribunal was satisfied that QMUL had not overlooked its legal obligation. Please pause and read again this paragraph. Err…

The Tribunal also found that QMUL had indeed effected indirect age discrimination, as individuals over 50 were unlikely to be eligible for the positions of the ECRs. However, the age discrimination (which QMUL denied at the time) was justified by the Tribunal as “legitimate aims… to increase the research profile of SMD whilst reducing costs… as the new employees were researchers funded by the State rather than the Respondent…

More questions arise. Should university managers maintain the freedom to dismiss older academics (who fail to wear the newest brand of tracksuit) while receiving State funds to replace them with ECRs? Should the welcome initiative to support ECRs be in conflict with their future prospects once progressing into an academic post? Can science work on short-termism, metrics and the terror of dismissal hanging over the heads of the scientists at work?

The question chosen by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) was more specific. Could the indirect age discrimination at QMUL be mitigated? Given that a single compulsory redundancy would offer insignificant cost-savings, why were alternatives not considered? The EAT judgment was this: “If there had been such a viable alternative, it would have surfaced during the long and careful process of restructuring, consultation and selection…” Raise eyebrows.

In the event, QMUL announced an operating surplus of £9M in 2012/2013, which rose to £17M in 2013/2014, leading its Principal and President to affirm “a deeply-held commitment to social justice, expressed in the way we treat our staff…” Managing an operating surplus in a College while replacing academics in the midst of their careers with ECRs based on projected financial deficit in one of its Schools amounts to a strange perception of commitment to social justice. Perspectives differ.

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6 thoughts on “Academic position, age discrimination and social justice

  1. Jake Dutton was a star. He was one of the few barristers I’ve met who was an honest man, who always strived for justice. I had an ET claim that I lost, My permission to appeal was granted when I used another barrister, and I asked Jake to appeal it for me. He became cross when he looked at the claim, and agreed I should not have lost. I lost the appeal, and Jake became even more cross. Jake offered to represent me at an oral hearing on a pro-bono basis such was his outrage that I should not have lost. We lost the oral hearing. Jake offered to take it to the Supreme Court, and again on a pro-bone basis I sat down with Jake and said that we had given it our best shot. I thanked him for his good efforts, but said I could not allow him to pursue this appeal on a pro-bono basis for me.The man was a star!.

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