Adapting to age-discrimination regulations

Universities must tread carefully in light of new age-discrimination regulations with regard to younger and mature students alike

March 27, 2008

The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, which came into force on October 1, prohibit discrimination against anyone in employment, education and training on grounds of age.

Under the legislation, employers are required to set a default retirement age, such as the national retirement age of 65, and to consider requests from staff to work beyond retirement age. It also means treating students the same whatever their age.

Moreover, an eye must be kept not only on pejorative language such as “wrinklies” and “infants”, but also on euphemisms such as “vibrant” and “experienced” that favour a particular age group.

Jim Soulsby, development officer at the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education, says you must be careful about using the word "mature". Universities will no longer be able to say they will consider mature applicants without traditional qualifications because this may discriminate against young applicants who also lack these qualifications.

Geraldine Swanton, senior associate in the education team at solicitors Martineau Johnson, says institutions may no longer be able to deny entry to students under the age of 18 if they fulfil other admissions criteria.

Guidance issued by the Equality Challenge Unit argues that while personal maturity could be an issue in students aged under 16, it would be hard to deny a place to those aged 16 and above on age grounds. It advises institutions to have a child-protection policy in place, a trained senior member of staff to deal with children and to get the Criminal Records Bureau to check staff responsible for under-18s.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions age partnership group says you need to be careful about demanding certain qualifications if they cannot be shown to be relevant to the post. If they have been recently developed or are no longer available, this could be discriminatory. You would need to show that equivalent qualifications are acceptable.

Interview panels should not be aware of how old a prospective member of staff or student is. And interviewers should not make assumptions based on a bald pate or crow's feet, warns Olivia Besly, human resources manager of Newham College London. The legislation applies to discrimination based on perceived as well as real age.

"Don't think a person is going to be retired soon so there is no point appointing them," says Besly. "They may be only 55 and planning to work for the next ten years."

Sam Heath, senior media officer for Age Concern, says his organisation is particularly concerned about potential older doctoral and other postgraduate students being turned down because of their age. "All universities need to stop working on the assumption that their students are young. They need to tailor courses and services to all age groups," he says.

Heath says that, thanks to pressure from Age Concern, there is no longer an age limit on claiming a student loan to pay for tuition fees and the limit for claiming a loan for living costs has risen to 60.

Soulsby says that everyone in higher education needs to be aware that the regulations cover everything a university does. "Because it is about the whole student experience within higher and further education, it covers goods and services such as creches, student union shops, libraries and other facilities," he says.

John Macnicol, visiting professor in social policy at the London School of Economics and author of a book on age discrimination, says that the full impact of the legislation is unlikely to become clear for some years, as it will have to be tested in court.

But he warns of the dangers of indirect discrimination through anything that makes an older person's life more difficult: putting him or her on the 17th floor of a building without a lift, for example. This could be interpreted as constructive dismissal.

Further information

• Equality Challenge Unit: www.ecu.ac.uk

• Department for Work and Pensions team promoting the benefits of a mixed age workforce: www.agepositive.gov.uk/agepartnershipgroup

• Age Discrimination: An Historical and Contemporary Analysis, by John Macnicol, CUP, 2006.

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