Crucial to review our retirement age, say public varsity professors

Continuous budget cuts and the government’s reluctance to extend the retirement age of professors in public universities will see a brain drain within the next year.

Unlike their peers in other countries who retire at a later age or serve until they expire, the mandatory retirement age for a local university lecturer is 60.

Prof Datuk Dr Omar Shawkataly, a retired chemistry professor from Universiti Sains Malaysia, said ‘early retirement’ will not only cause a brain drain, but it also does not make financial sense for the government which has spent considerably to educate university lecturers.

“The minimum qualification for a university lecturer is a Masters degree but many of us have PhDs. The government has spent millions sponsoring our education, right from the undergraduate level.

“From this perspective, having university professors serve public universities only for 25 to 30 years is a bad return of investment,” Omar said.

Omar, 63, said unlike other professions which allow an employee to start working after a first degree, many public university lecturers only enter the profession in their mid 30s after obtaining their PhDs.

“A government clerk starts work at age 18 and is able to serve the nation for 40 years with only 11 years of formal education.

“But I spent 23 years, including obtaining my PhD before I became a lecturer and the maths just does not add up as the return of investment for the government is not as good,” said Omar who said the matter was not raised during administration of the previous government as cost-cutting was the agenda of the day.

Calls to increase the retirement age of members of the academia had been made over the years, the last in 2016. It was not properly addressed except for the introduction of the Flexible Scheme for Retired Scholars (FSRS) in 2017 – but that too was discontinued in some universities due to shortage of funds.

Under the scheme, retired professors who wish to continue serving must be prepared to forgo a full monthly salary and allowance payment.

The salary scale under the FSRS according to Omar is RM6,000 for an associate professor, RM8,000 (Grade C professor), RM10,000 (Grade B) and RM12,000 (Grade A).

The contract is only for one year, and is subject to renewal upon application by the professor to the university and must be made three months before the one year is up.

Omar said when the retirement age in the country was 55, the Malaysian Academic Association Council (MAAC) and the Malaysian Academic Movement (GERAK) had asked that the retirement age for public university professors be increased.

“The government then raised the retirement age to 56, and later to 60 across the board for all government employees.

“As academics, we are not asking for an increase in the retirement age across the board. You cannot equate professors and government staff who engage in manual labour to retire at the same age.

“Judges in this country retire at 66, and we feel it should be the same for members of the academics,” said Omar.

Omar, whose term under the FSRS in Universiti Sains Malaysia ended last September, said experienced professors should be allowed to continue to serve at least until age 65 as many tend to reach their prime in their 60s.

“There is no mandatory retirement age for professors in Australia while in Indonesia, associate professors serve until they are 64 and full professors serve until they are 70,” he said.

While admitting there will be a negative impact of delaying the retirement age, including denying younger lecturers a chance to enter the profession, Omar said the government ought to study the matter urgently as senior professors are able to guide and motivate younger lecturers and thus contribute to nation-building.

“With our experience, we can lecture at private institutions of higher learning when we retire, but what will happen to our students in public universities?

“For us, it is not just about drawing a monthly salary. With age comes experience and we still have a lot of writing and papers to complete before we call it a day,” he said.

Omar’s views were echoed by Associate Professor Datuk P. Sundaramoorthy, a criminologist from Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Sundramoorthy said he dreads thinking what the future holds as he is one year short of meeting the statutory retirement age.

“There are many outstanding senior professors in the country but they are forced to give up due to lack of funds and this will cause a serious brain drain,” said Sundramoorthy who has been in the service for 27 years.

“I feel I am at my prime right now. You become better in time. As you age, you are able to see things better unlike when you were a 30 or 40-year-old lecturer.

He said some professors are offered an honorary position in universities which enables them to have an office where they can continue writing or lecturing but it comes with conditions.

“They must meet certain KPIs, including bringing in grants, usually from non-governmental agencies where a certain percentage goes back to the university,” Sundramoorthy shared.

He also said when he meets his peers in other countries, they are often shocked to learn that we are expected to retire at 60.

“The retirement age for professors in India and Singapore is between 62 and 65 while in the US, once a professor is tenured, he works till he expires,” Sundramoorthy said, adding there were also cases of tenures of some professors not being extended once they retire as decision makers feel they are too outspoken.

Universiti Malaya lecturer Associate Professor Dr Megat Ahmad Kamaluddin Megat Daud said while financial limitations continue to hamper the tenure of lecturers at public universities, there is also the issue of unemployment that needs to be looked into.

“It is unfortunate for us that we have to leave the profession due to financial constraints, especially when we still need experts in areas like engineering, business, information communication and technology as the nation is embracing Industry 4.0.

“There is also a need to balance the interest of unemployed graduates and those who can still contribute … the matter should be looked at holistically,” he said.

In 2016, former Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh was reported as saying any decision on professors’ contract renewals will be decided by the public universities themselves.

Idris was reported as saying universities are autonomous and free to decide on the matter, not the ministry.