WORLD / Europe
Universities see 50% rise in prodigies
Updated: 2008-04-01 07:38
The number of under-18s studying at British universities has gone up by more than 50 percent in the past six years, according to figures which suggest that ambitious teenagers are taking advantage of new anti-discrimination laws to demand an early place.
There are nearly 8,000 under-18s at university - up from less than 5,000 in 2002, figures obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency by The Guardian show. The overwhelming majority started only a year early, at 17, but official documents suggest there are up to 100 university students under 16.
Universities have been forced to examine child protection laws that are usually the preserve of schools. Many UK universities have preferred to resist approaches from children under 18 for fear of the "in loco parentis" role they have to take. But a change to the age discrimination laws in 2006 now means they have to consider all applicants, regardless of age.
Margaret Morrisey, chair of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "The danger is that while a child may be bright and need stimulation, universities cannot provide for the needs of a child. To push them prematurely into an adult world might not be responsible."
Universities UK, which represents all higher education institutions (HEIs), last month hosted a conference on the issue.
Guidance at the event warned universities to run criminal record checks on staff working closely with under-18s. "The breadth of contact between HEIs and young people under 18 years of age is considerable and growing," it says.
Julie Walkling, director of student services at London Metropolitan University and chair of Amosshe, the student support organization which organized the conference, said: "Quite possibly young people are getting more ambitious."
She said that younger students were high achievers, and tended to apply to Russell Group colleges such as Oxford and Cambridge.
"In general, it's Russell Group universities which get applications, because we are talking about prodigies really. The trend will continue - age regulations have shifted [on] how people think about the age at which people can go to university."
Sufiah Yusof fled Oxford University in 2000, aged 15, after her third-year exams. She was found after a police search, and blamed her parents for too much pressure; she never finished her course and became an administrative assistant for a construction firm. Her younger siblings, Aisha and Iskander, attended Warwick University together at the ages of 17 and 12, graduating in 2002.
Peter Dunn, head of communications at Warwick, said: "We've been there we've done that, we are loath to do it again because we want to make sure students have all the opportunities university can offer. They were challenging circumstances we'd not want to repeat. They did fine, they came out with fine degrees but we're not sure we'd rush to do it again. At the end of the day university is about the life experience as well as education alone.
"Rather than pushing children into university too early, the University of Warwick now supports talented children in schools until they are old enough for university." The university cannot bar under-18s because of anti-age discrimination laws.
The number of under-18s who accept an offer of a place at the university is between 2- 2.5 percent of acceptances, a spokesman said. Of those, 71 percent are 17-year-olds who would turn 18 by January 1 of their first year. Oxford University said it has 14 students under 18: one is aged 16 and the others are 17.
(China Daily 04/01/2008 page10)