Ask the panel

October 6, 2006

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I work as an admissions tutor. My university continues to ask for the birth dates of students on admissions forms. However, I know that we now no longer ask for these dates on applications for jobs. We have received no guidance from the university on the legality of asking for ages of students in admissions, and whenever I ask about the situation no one seems to know the answer. I am aware that the age regulations that have now come into effect cover students as well as employees. Is it still legal to ask for students' dates of birth?

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "It must be remembered that the Department for Education and Skills has advised that each university or college consults its own legal advisers on this - so the following advice should be read with that in mind."

She goes on: "It is the ECU's view that it would be sensible to continue to ask prospective students their age, as there are specific legal obligations when providing services both for young people who are under the age of 18 - such as duty of care and so on - and for people whom the law would describe as vulnerable adults.

"It could be risky to separate questions about age from the application form, for example, by asking the question on a separate equal opportunities monitoring form. This is good practice in relation to employment procedures but doesn't readily transfer to admissions procedures. Given the volume of applications being processed there would a serious risk of losing or mismatching the data.

"In addition, admissions tutors would find it difficult and perhaps impossible to access an applicant's suitability and/or potential in relation to the course for which they had applied without knowing how the applicant has performed in relation to their education to date and over what period of time that education has been undertaken, including breaks in education.

"However, admissions tutors will need appropriate age-awareness training and careful advice on how they collect this information and on how they use it, given that there may be good reasons for breaks in a person's education, and a pattern of past difficulties is no certain predictor of future problems."

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations mean that requesting applicants' ages for employment purposes is open to challenge.

"Keeping a minimum age for student applicants goes against the spirit of the new laws. However, it is probably wise to continue asking for students' ages because there are certain responsibilities on the institution in relation to students under 18."

The UCU would recommend that any applicants be considered on a case-by-case basis. The issue here is not primarily age, but rather the ability of individuals and their readiness for university study.

"Institutions with no minimum or maximum age for entry would be well advised to consider the benefits of having in place policies and procedures outlining the nature of their support for either very young or very old students.

"In particular, there may be child-protection issues to bear in mind. Both higher education employees and further education employees working with higher education students under 18 may need to undergo checking procedures.

"The issues are sufficiently unclear that the Department for Education and Skills has advised higher education institutions to consult their own solicitors about this."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

 

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