Why these restrictions? – Faisal Bari

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A FRIEND, who is around 40 years, wants to go back to university for another undergraduate degree. Most universities in Pakistan, especially public sector ones, have age restrictions and have told her that she is too ‘old’ to be admitted to their programme.

Why have age restrictions on entry into any university programme? Apart from being ageist, it doesn’t make sense either. With modern economies demanding flexibility and variety in educational and skill sets, restricting people who want to increase their knowledge, change careers or skill sets and/or have a second chance at completing education just does not make sense.

We know a large number of children and young people do not get an opportunity to study and a large number drop out of education before they complete 10 years of schooling. Of those who enrol in school, only about seven per cent reach university level. But surveys have also shown that a lot of people who dropped out, for whatever the reason, would like to have a second chance at returning to education. If they are only able to do so in their 30s, 40s or later, why would we want to restrict them?

Traditionally, two arguments have been given for such restrictions. One, an older person takes the seat of a younger one. This argument should not really matter anymore even if it was important at one time. With the expansion of the university sector, most programmes do not have the kind of competition where ‘young vs old’ becomes an issue. With longer life spans and work life, the young/old argument has lost most of its force anyway. But if there are specific programmes where age matters, they can argue for restrictions as an exception. The general rule should be that all programmes, unless otherwise specified (and there should be strong reasons why exceptions are made), are open to all age groups. Discrimination on the basis of age is still discrimination.

Two, some people also argue that having people from significantly different age groups in one class and/or programme impacts the learning of younger students. This argument might have some merit in early years of schooling, but it does not have any merit at university level. What difference to the class does it make if we have 40 year olds in the same class as 20 year olds? In fact, the experience of older students adds significant value to the learning experience of all, especially in more applied subjects. Peer-to-peer learning is an important part of the overall learning experience in any class. Having a more diverse student body always adds to the learning potential and experience and is almost never a distraction.

Several years ago, I attended a board of studies meeting of a university programme at an all-female university. One of the items on the agenda was that the programme wanted to relax age restrictions for entry into their MPhil programme and take the age up to 35. The argument given for the relaxation was that many women, post-marriage, drop out of labour markets for a few years and then after a break want to re-enter the labour market. And many of them want to have an advanced degree before making a re-entry. The programme wanted to facilitate this re-entry. I raised the question of why they wanted to still only raise the age to 35? Why have a restriction at all? Why not facilitate getting an advanced degree for any woman who has the requisite background irrespective of her age? I was a minority of one on that table. For all my arguments, I could not make others see my point and for the life of me I could not see why they were reluctant to go in that direction.

One person actually said, ‘What if a 55-year-old applies to the programme?’ I asked what would happen and how would this impact their programme? There was no real answer to this but, in the end, after voting, they decided to relax the age restriction to 35 years only.

Age restrictions are pervasive in our system in education as well as for job eligibility. Even for job eligibility, most of these restrictions, barring for a few jobs, do not make much sense anymore. But they are there. And there seems to be no onus on the recruiting authority to show why such restrictions make sense. Here, too, the norm should be that all jobs are open to all, and if there is a restriction then the onus is on the recruiting authority to show, to a reasonable degree, that such a restriction is merited.

But age restrictions are a subset of the restrictions that we apply. Restrictions based on religion, caste and gender also still exist. And the discrimination against people who have physical or learning disabilities is horrendous. For example, the HEC requires students to have done mathematics till at least matriculation/O Level if they want to enrol as a student in any Pakistani university. But there are young people who have dyscalculia (sometimes called mathematics or number dyslexia). Imagine a student who is excellent in other subjects (history, philosophy, art, drama, etc) but is not able to do mathematics. Should s/he not study in Pakistan? There should be a way for such a student to progress. Given that diagnostic testing is either not widely available in Pakistan and/or is very expensive, and there is no set procedure through which such students can approach boards of education and HEC, most students will not get a chance to progress. We will return to such restrictions another time.

Most of the age-related and other restrictions that we currently have in our education system do not make sense anymore, if they ever did. But inertia keeps them in place. The costs that these restrictions impose on hundreds of thousands of people looking to return to education and on society as a whole is very large. We need systemic change to push back against these restrictions and this inertia.