May 20, 2024

Minister Tahir Mamman And His Varsity Age Limit

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Oluwafemi Ositade is a 17-year-old student of the Ambassadors College, Ota, Ogun State. He is a child every parent would want, and every nation would adore and celebrate. The boy broke the internet recently when the news broke that the prodigy gained scholarships to 14 different universities outside the shores of Nigeria.

According to the news, little Ositade who participated in the popular Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), scored a total of 760 marks out of 800 with a Cumulative Grade Points Aggregate (CGPA) of 4.04/4.0. The performance earned him full scholarships to many Ivy League universities such as Harvard in the United States of America, and other top-notch universities in Canada and the Middle East.

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The universities that have offered the genius full scholarships include Harvard University, Brown University, Duke University, University of Toronto Lester B Pearson Scholarship, Wesleyan University, Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, University of Miami, Howard University, Stetson University, Fisk University, University of Toronto, Mississauga Campus, University of Toronto St. George Campus, University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus and Drexel University.

These universities are not concerned about the ‘maturity’ or otherwise of the 17-year-old boy. They are interested in his brilliance and what he could achieve in his cradle for the betterment of mankind. That is how advanced countries think. That is how those who run governments in sane climes project for the future. They are never tied down by antediluvian policies.

Last week, Nigerians were served with the sad news of the woeful performances of the candidates who participated in the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME). Of the 1.8 million candidates who sat for the examination, 1.4 million of them were said to have scored below 200 out of 400 marks. Terrible results! But while parents, guardians and Nigerians generally were bemoaning the horrible UTME results, the news broke that from inside the black pot, a whitish substance in terms of agidi (eko) had come out.

From the Bullamakanka town of Omu Aran, Kwara State, came the news of a 15-year-old genius, Olukayode Victor Olusola, who scored 362 marks in the same UTME. Olusola, a student of Government Secondary School, Omu Aran, scored 95 marks each in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry and 77 in English Language. He intends to study Electrical Electronics Engineering at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State. That should be good news to his parents, his school and every human being with a good sense of merit. But we are in Nigeria.

Despite this sterling performance, Olusola may have to wait for the next three years before he can fulfill his dream of a university education. Why? Someone high up there feels and thinks that a 15-year-old, who could study to score 362 marks out of 400 marks obtainable, is “too young” to be in the university. If the brilliant boy were to be an American, or a citizen of any of the other forward-looking Western countries, he would be celebrated. Here, we think in the opposite direction of where the advanced world faces! Too sad!

Penultimate week, precisely on Monday, April 22, 2024, our Minister of Education, Professor Tahir Mamman, was in the news. It was for, to be humorous and obsolete, the ‘wrongest’ of all reasons. The minister, while on an inspection of the UTME being held across the country then, said that the admission age for all undergraduate courses in our tertiary institutions would henceforth be 18 years. The position of the minister runs in contrast to the existing regulation in most universities, which is to the effect that a candidate must have attained the age of 16 years or would have done so on the first day of October in the year of his/her candidature.

In 2022, the Senate Committee on Basic Education said that 16 years would be the age of admission. The Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) Registrar, Professor Ishaq Oloyede, told the Senate Committee that JAMB had no powers to disqualify any candidate on the basis of age. He emphasised that individual universities could determine age to admit as the case maybe. Most universities peg their admission at 16 years. Obafemi Awolowo University, (OAU), Ile Ife, for instance, has no age limit. There was no age limit when I gained admission into the school in the late 80s and the situation remains the same till date. So, between our universities and the Minister of Education, who is right?

The minister, a professor and thinker, ‘justified’ his position on the age of admission to the university. According to him, parents who allowed their children to go into the university at the age of 16 “are pushing their children too much”. To arrest the situation, Mamman, after giving a pass m ark for the conduct of the examination said: “The other thing which we noticed is the age of those who have applied to go to the university. Some of them are really too young. We are going to look at it because they are too young to understand what the university education is all about. That’s the stage when students migrate from a controlled environment where they are in charge of their own affairs.

So, if they are too young, they won’t be able to manage properly. That accounts for some of the problems we are seeing in the universities. We are going to look at that. Eighteen is the entry age for university. But you will see students, 15, 16, going to the examination. It is not good for us. Parents should be encouraged not to push their children too much.” The minister then proffered a solution, to wit: The only solution to that is skills; by talking skills right from the time they entered school, from the primary school. Somebody should finish with one skill or another. That is part of the assumption of the 6-3-3-4 system…”

I have tried to rationalise what informed the minister’s posture without success. Why do we always think backward in this part of the world? All over the world, we see, and hear stories of child prodigies doing exploits. But here we are talking about a 16 or 17-year-old child being “too young” to be in the university. What about special children, the ones we call geniuses- the likes of Ositade and Olusola mentioned above? What do the advanced nations of the world do to them? Ositade, who in the estimation of Professor Mamman is “too young” to be in the university, has secured 14 different full scholarships outside Nigeria! This is where our problem lies as a nation.

If we accept the proposal by the minister, it means that a child who completed his or her secondary school education and passed all the qualifying examinations at the age of 16 would have to wait for another two years before he or she could be admitted into the university. What would such a child be doing at home for the two years interval? Are there government established intermediate vocational centres where such children could go? Or they would just be at home waiting for ‘old age’ to write their UTME? Did Professor Mamman give consideration to the damage the two-year break could cause? Under whose watch would the children be during the two-year hiatus? Do we talk about the possibility of waning enthusiasm, interest, frustration and other psychological effects? All these are by the way. It is obvious that the minister spoke from the point of ignorance. That indeed is very unfortunate in itself!

The extant law on admission into tertiary institutions in Nigeria today pegs the age at 16 years. Any child who is 16 years of age by October of the year he or she seeks admission is qualified. There is nothing in the books for now to show that this position has changed. We copied a lot from the Western world. I think we should also copy their mode of education and the policies therein. We need to do this if indeed we must compete with them.

The oldest, and one of the best universities in the world, is the University of Oxford, United Kingdom. A check on the university’s admission requirements for undergraduate courses revealed that: “The University does not set any age requirements (except for the Medicine course: please see below), but applicants for all undergraduate courses will be expected to demonstrate a mature approach to the study of their subject which includes demonstrable skills of critical analysis, wide contextual knowledge and the ability to manage their time independently.”

The only condition the university gives for intending undergraduate students below age 18 is as stated: “If you intend to begin your course before your eighteenth birthday, we recommend that you consult the college to which you are applying to discuss your application, as they will wish to consider provision for your welfare.” It is only candidates seeking admission in the university’s medical college that are required to be 18 years of age “at the time they start the Medicine course. The clinical contact in our programme starts in the first term and means that younger students would not be able to take part in required elements of the course. For Medicine, your application will not be shortlisted unless you will be at least 18 years old on the 1 November of your first term.”

The same applies to most Ivy League universities in the United States of America. Come to think of this. It is on record that Harvard University for example, had, as far back as 1909, that is 115 years ago, admitted an 11-year-old into the institution! William James Sidis (April 1, 1898- July 17, 1944) entered the university at age 11. Described as an “American child prodigy”, Sidis’ father first sought admission for him at age nine but was rejected by the university. Two years later, Boris Sidis, the psychiatrist father of the genius, convinced the university to admit his son, who is recorded in history as having “an IQ between 250 and 300 and conversant in 25 languages and dialects”. A year after his admission, Sidis was said to have “lectured the Harvard Mathematical Club on four-dimensional bodies”. One of those who met Sidis in Harvard, Norbert Wiener, in his book, “Ex-Prodigy”, said of Sidis thus: “The talk would have done credit to a first or second-year graduate student of any age…talk represented the triumph of the unaided efforts of a very brilliant child.”.

By the age of 16, Sidis, on June 18, 1914, left the university with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Imagine if Sidis were to be in the Nigeria of Mamman and the backward policy of age limit! Yet, we have many Sidis as our children in Nigeria. Yet again in the same Kwara State of Olukayode Victor Olusola, a Catholic secondary school, Eucharistic Heart of Jesus Model College (EHJMC), Ilorin, displayed 30 photographs of its students, who scored between 355 and 300 marks out of 400 obtainable marks in the same UTME. These children are between the ages of 15 and 17.

Sadly, our Minister of Education said these ones are “too young” to be in the university. This is one of the reasons why in the year 2024, Nigeria still imports plastic toothpicks and calls it ‘dental floss’ to give it ostentatious status! How do we match up to a country, which 115 years ago rose above age limitation to accommodate the best from its educational system when in the mid-21st century, we still consider our 16-year-olds as “too young” to be admitted into our universities irrespective of their performances at the qualifying examinations?

Most embarrassing from the minister is his allusion to the 6-3-3-4 system of education as a solution to the ‘immaturity’ of young undergraduates. To the best of my ignorance, Nigeria moved from the 6-3-3-4, to the current 9-3-4 system in 2004. That was when the State Primary Education Board (SPEB) changed to State Universal Basic Education Boards (SUBEB) across the states. By that change, primary and junior secondary (first nine years) came under SUBEB.

Is the minister not aware of that, such that he would still be relying on a policy that was changed 20 years ago? This is one of the problems we have as a nation. The quality of the mental ability of those who superintend over every segment of our life speaks volumes. Granted that there is illiteracy in the land, but must our policy makers also be ignorant of the correct policies in their ministries and departments? Is anyone still wondering why we have not been able to make any headway? Can we get the respected Professor Oloyede of JAMB to whisper to the minister that his position on the age requirement for admission into tertiary institutions is wrong, and the minister should not mislead the children to think that they are below the constitutionally prescribed age? Such a bland announcement by the minister is capable of sending some children to depression.

It is gratifying to note that our fainéant senate is rising to the occasion, this time around, to curtail the pre-historic thinking of Minister Mamman on the age limit for admission into our universities. Senator Adeyemi Adaramodu, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, was quoted to have described the stance of the minister as “just an opinion.” It had better be! Adaramodu, according to the reports, said that any adjustments to the age limit for admission into our universities would require proper legislative procedures, adding that if such a matter was brought before the senate, “there is going to be a public hearing.

All the stakeholders will sit down and talk about it – the parents, teachers, legislators, civil society organisations, even foreign organisations.” Should the issue come up for debate in the National Assembly, I commend the two chambers to take the wisdom of Professor Dipo Kolawole, former Vice Chancellor, Ekiti State University, Ado Ekiti, who, while faulting Minister Mamman, said: “With global advancement in medicine, science and technology, age is no more a major determinant of capacity to cope with higher education but depth of knowledge.

It is sheer backwardness to measure maturity principally on the basis of age.” Describing the minister’s position as “absurd” and “repulsive”, Kolawole posited that: “In America, China and others, people now obtain PhD at relatively young age. They are immediately recruited and deposited in their research laboratories and institutes to enhance technological advancement of their countries in a competitive world of science and technology.”

One can only hope that Mamman, and many of his ilk, would be conscious enough to know that the world has moved beyond the level they are. Rather than depriving brilliant children of admission to tertiary institutions on account of their ages, the government should develop policies that would make the universities to grow to the level that they would begin to make “provision for your (their) welfare”, of Mamman’s “too young” undergraduates. It is wrong for Nigeria to keep engaging the reverse gear while other nations of the world are moving at supersonic speed.

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