What has age got to do with a university education? The answers from education experts, parents and the government provide an interesting moment for Nigeria to reflect and perhaps review the country's university's admission policy in view of its bulging youth population, writes Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal.
Almost every year, Nigeria's universities are a party pooper for young, exceptionally brilliant students - and their parents or guardians.
By putting in the way a barrier that prevents a cerebral 15-year-old Ekene Ezenuala Franklin - who was the overall best candidate in 2019 Unified Tertiary Matriculations Examination (UTME) with 347 score - Nigerian tertiary institutions like the University of Lagos (UNILAG) have again pressed the 'pause' button on the academic dreams of a young Nigerian.
Franklin is guilty of being 15 and not 16 years old.
Although the 16 years age limit requirement for university admission has no legal backing, it has become the gold standard for some universities in Nigeria, which had in their post-Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) advertorial stated that "candidates, who will not be 16 years of age by October 31, 2019, are not eligible and need not apply."
This year's Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB's) poster boy is not alone in this dragnet of Nigeria's universities' 'fatwa' for exceptionally brilliant scholars.
It is little wonder that the brilliant youngster, Orisheneye David Okorogheye, was stopped in his tracks while trying to apply to UNILAG despite scoring 332 in 2018 UTME.
Think about Tochukwu Nwafor. His mien exuded confidence and pre-eminence. It was indubitable, the teenager was precocious.
At 14, gangly and shy, Nwafor had already completed his secondary school education. He was as tall as a 16-year-old.
Following a successful outing in his West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) and UTME exams, the sky was his limit. His parents' face had lit with pride and fulfilment - that their beloved son would likely complete his first degree by the age of 18.
While they entered into the admission office of a federal university in the South-East with grace, they emerged with grief. The verdict: the university would not accept Nwafor because of his age - he was yet to be 16.
As of September 2018, the estimated population of Nigeria is about 200 million, according to the United Nations, with an average of 17.9 years. Most of that is a young population, with 42.54 percent between the ages of 1 and 14. There is also a very high dependency ratio of the country at 88.2 dependents per non-dependents.
Against the backdrop of the statistics, education experts argue that the continued implementation of the 'illegal' age-limit policy is a disaster waiting to happen.
With more and more vibrant and precocious kids completing their primary and secondary education earlier than ever imagined in the past and the universities shooing them away, claiming that they must be 16 years old before they can be fit to learn at the ivory tower, the Nigerian government should not wait until many of these kids become despondent.
Also, think about Faith Oyende, Lagos State University's (lLASU) best graduating science student in 2017. Her story further illustrates the angst of those denied admission by Nigerian universities because of the age limit.
Twice, young Oyende was denied admission into a university because he had not attained the age of 16. She eventually graduated at the age of 21 having studied Biochemistry and graduated with a 4.68 cumulative grade point average, (CGPA), to emerge the best graduating student.
When asked about her story, she stated: "It is a long story. I actually wanted to become a medical doctor. But I was denied admission at UNILAG and LASU because I was not yet 16 years old. Having finished secondary school at the age of 15, I wrote and passed the UTME. But during the post-JAMB test, I was told I must have attained 16 years on or before October 1, 2011."
Unfortunately for her, she did not turn 16 until January 1, 2012.
Last year, 15-year-old Okorogheye who sat for the WAEC (May/June 2018) examinations made A1 in all his subjects but could not be admitted into the university.
Said to be an indigene of Delta State from Warri North Local Council, Okorogheye graduated from Starfields School, Iju and he had wanted to study Neurosurgery at the university. A cloudy, retrogressive educational policy has momentarily beclouded that shiny ambition.
Not a few Nigerians are wondering if the nation's ivory tower are progressive and futuristic in their thinking on the issue of admission policy regarding age limit.
The Director of Studies at Starfields, Chris Eigbe had argued that people like Okorogheye should be given a scholarship and admission into the university so as to achieve their dreams at a young age.
Similarly, the Vice-Chancellor of Caleb University, Prof. Ayandiji Aina, pointed out that children with exceptional performance should be given a waiver. According to him, using age limit to momentarily halt their academic momentum might not be good for the nation and the individuals.
Aina stated: "I think the law in place states that you have to be 16 years before you are given admission into the university. But I think there should be an exception to every rule particularly for exceptionally brilliant students."
But why not cancel the "16 years" age requirement for university admission policy?
Although UNILAG vice chancellor, Prof Oluwatoyin Ogundipe did not respond to a text message sent by The
Guardian to his phone, an official who pleaded anonymity justified the 16-year age limit for fresh students in the institution.
The official explained that any applicant below 16 is immature and may not be able to cope with the rigour of academic work. At 15, the student is not yet an adult; he or she is considered too young and may be easily influenced.
Similarly, vice chancellor, University of Ibadan (UI), Prof Idowu Olayinka said the national policy on education put the entry level for secondary school at 11 while that of the university is 16.
I even discussed with our colleague in the faculty of law that it is part of the regulation that you must be 16, then they should not have been allowed to write JAMB at all, until they have changed the law because you cannot be abrobating and reprobating at the same time.
No until that law has changed, it when i8 entered the university in 1977, it has always been part of the regulation that you must be 16. There is no point rushing the children through school, it is not just about academic work, they must be matured enough to cope with the rigour and challenges associated with university education. We have had cases where parents would go and bring falsified affidavits that their children are 16 when really they are not.
If a child finishes secondary school at 15, he can take a gap year, go and learn a skill then come back to school when they are 16. Its not just about passing examination, when you see nine and ten year olds, there's always a difference in their emotional maturity. I have discussed with people who benefitted from such and they said it does not really pay.
Universities are meant for adults, parents cannot follow you to school so students have unlimited freedom and if care is not taken, some of them could derail.
Former vice chancellor of UNILAG, Prof Oye Ibidapo Obe said a child needs some level of maturity to be able to cope with the interactions that you get in universities, moreso when it is the first time some of them would be given an opportunity to stay alone and make decisions.
He however noted that in the United Kingdom and United States, there are some exceptional children, adding "I think in as much as they are mentally ready to cope with that work, in terms of their social status, until we start to have hostels with special people who can guide them to stay with them, then its quite risky because they get enmeshed in what the adult students do on campus.
'I wont feel comfortable for example if I have a 15-year old to start a university, I will like to see those coming in to be a little more matured, to be able to take good care of themselves. There is no law that says you cannot take them in, its just a procedure but I'm saying to take them in, let there be additional facilities for them so that they won't be lost. If I were the vice chancellor, I would look for funds to build some hostels with people to take care of them or you could do it in such a way that those members of staff living on campus can mentor them.
In the same vein, former vice chancellor Caleb University, Prof Ayodeji Olukoju said a system must be put in place to nurture those brilliant students who are underaged to be offered admission.
However, an education consultant, Mrs. Busola Adegbaju, thinks differently. She posited: "The national curriculum and age range should be followed as it is a yardstick for admission into any academic institutions.
At a certain age, a child is expected to exhibit some skills morally, intellectually, emotionally and socially.
I can assure you that the standard of education should be maintained following the national curriculum that will produce a total child who will, in turn, face future challenges that may not be academic related."
Former vice chancellor, Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ago Iwoye, Prof Saburi Adesanya said if a child s not properly matured before entering the university, it may adversely affect him.
"Can our system sustain such brilliant students so that they end up committing su7icide because they cannot cope with the rigour and stress associated with university education?" "As a university, we don't have the capacity and counselling ability to take care of those children. The best thing is to let them mature if we do not have the capacity to maintain their mental capacity. How many of these children ended up with first class? If they get derailed with the social vices, can they cope? If the system cannot provide the facilities, the best thing is for the universities to set parametres for those they can handle."
As the issue has become a recurring decimal, experts have called on the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, to avert the looming disaster of wasting the brains of young, vibrant and scholarly youngsters.
Three years ago, education stakeholders had engaged in spirited arguments - for and against - the age-limit admission policy by the universities. The age limit has become a norm with the exception of few universities admitting admission seekers as young as 14 and 15 years old.
For Dada Olanrewaju, a career guidance counsellor, the dynamic nature of contemporary society and the attendant globalization are some of the factors responsible for the diverse changes witnessed along this line.
Maintaining that 16 is still a reasonable age for a student to gain admission into a university, Olanrewaju, however, regretted that some parents and institutions have abused the policy.
"Globalisation has made students very smart in learning, due to the introduction of advanced learning gadgets, as well as the Internet. But it is not always advisable to allow students below the age of 18 into the universities owing to the fact that, most of them possess low Intelligent Quotient (IQ) and cannot meet up with the demands of the society," he stated.
Arguing further, Olanrewaju noted: "Admitting students below the approved age could also lead to stress and mental instability.
Some of these students are just not equal to the multi-tasking nature of life in higher institutions. We have seen a case at the University of Lagos where a student went berserk because his mental capacity was incapable of assimilating what he was learning and getting used to the way of life in the university."
Yet, Nigeria's universities are overwhelmed by strong population growth and a significant 'youth bulge' with more than 60 percent of the country's population under the age of 24. Similarly, the rapid expansion of the nation's higher education sector in recent decades has failed to deliver the resources or seats to accommodate demand.
A substantial number of would-be college and university students are turned away from the system. About two-thirds of applicants who sat for the country's national entrance examination in 2015 could not get admission into a university.
According to data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS), the number of Nigerian students abroad increased by 164 percent in the decade between 2005 and 2015 alone, from 26,997 to 71,351.
The reason is apparent: it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for a Nigerian student to gain admission into a university in the country leading to the proliferation of illegal universities (the NUC recently published a list of 58 fake universities).
At other times, Nigerian youths are forced to seek university in countries like the Republic of Benin, Togo, Ghana, and even Chad.
Adding another but a familiar twist to the issue, an educationist, Adewunmi Peter, would rather accuse the elites of abusing the age limit in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions using their financial muscle.
Peter claimed that 60 percent of students below the stipulated age limit in different schools are children of the rich, whose parents could afford to spirit them through schools to acquire degrees at a tender age.
"However," he said, "one thing they fail to understand is that these children are barely mature for some of the stages they find themselves. Nonetheless, the fast learners among them assimilate easily in terms of academics, while some of them are just unserious and end up becoming a bunch of nuisance."
Yet, Peter admitted: "The good thing is that some of these students end up achieving their life's ambition in good time, while their parents also put off the burden of funding their education quite early in life."
One parent, Haruna Adeyemo, believe that parents who allow their children to get admitted into tertiary institutions at a tender age have reasons for doing so.
"For me, it is not always advisable to let a child under the age of 18 to get into the university even though as a parent, I want the best for my children. Most parents really want their children to get done with education early in life - get a job where available and get married in time as well."
In saner climes, experts noted, the federal and state ministries of education would have called a summit on the issue of age limit in seeking admission into the university. To them, it is an issue of national and human capital development.
They argued that Nigerian youths have a lot to offer their fatherland and must, therefore, be protected by the government by the way it defines policies, especially in the education sector.
Stakeholders, however, urged the federal and state governments to return the nation's tertiary education system to its glorious days. With implicit confidence that a four-year programme will run as such, perhaps, not many parents will be eager to push their children through the ivory tower while still enjoying their childhood.
In the meantime, the jury is still out as to the usefulness of having a cap or not on the age of who gets admitted into a Nigerian university.