Go home, you are 55

Updated May 17, 2019

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

IT was recently reported in the newspapers that the Punjab School Education Department (SED) is contemplating retiring all teachers who are 55 years of age or older. The current retirement age is 60.

There are 50,000-odd teachers in the Punjab, out of some 400,000-odd total public sector teachers, who are 55 and above. The policy currently being contemplated would, by force, send home 50,000 people. The decision has not been taken yet but, if it is, it will likely be before the next budget.

Though the reports do not mention the reasons why the SED is mulling over this option, it could only be one of the following.

The salary bill for teachers is difficult for the SED to sustain. Given the crunch on fiscal resources, it would not be surprising if retiring senior teachers is seen as a way of reducing the salary bill, even if temporarily, to ride out this crunch period.

Another reason could be that over-55 teachers are considered ‘dead wood’. They are thought to be poor teachers who, given the stage of their career, cannot be trained to be better. Getting rid of them (though with pension and other benefits due to them) might be the only good option in this case.

An age-based policy will not solve performance-related issues.

The SED’s degree requirements for being a teacher have changed. The minimum requirement for entering the department as a teacher is now graduation. Previously, even matriculation and intermediate qualifiers with a teaching certificate could become teachers. A significant number of the 55-and-above crowd are not graduates. Is this an attempt to change the composition of teachers in Punjab?

The graduation requirement cannot be applied retrospectively. Knowing this, getting rid of all 55-year-olds is an easier option. This means that any good teachers amongst the 50,000, including those who might be graduates but are 55 or older, will also be targeted. This will remain a problem for any age-based policy. The department could have asked all current teachers to complete graduation over a reasonable time period when they changed the entry requirements, but it did not go for this option.

It could also be that all of these factors are reasons for why this policy is being considered: 55-and-above are mostly non-graduates, they have a higher percentage of poorly performing teachers who can now no longer be trained or motivated to improve, and they are also costing a fair bit at a time when budgets are getting tighter.

But even if all of these factors exist, an age-based policy does not make sense. When people joined the service, they were given the understanding that if they performed at a certain level they would continue to serve until they reached 60. These teachers seem to have done what was required of them. Why would the state want to go back on the explicit or at least the implicit contract that it made with these teachers? In the process of going back on this understanding, would the state not lose some credibility with the younger cohorts of teachers as well?

If there are teachers in the 55-plus cohort who are not doing as well as some of the younger colleagues, why not have a performance-based policy for termination? There must be some in the older cohort who are doing well. Why make a policy that penalises them?

The department knows that any performance-based policy that they come up with will get challenged in courts and will be hard to implement administratively. So they are exploring the easier option. But the easier option might not be ‘right’ option.

The army does retire its non-commissioned staff at 45 or so. But this comparison does not hold. Armed forces have requirements for physical fitness and strenuous work; the job requires a certain level of bodily capability that is more possible for younger people. Teaching does not have such requirements. To the contrary, more experience — if the teacher is reflective, and open to learning and improving — can be an asset.

Equally importantly, it is the change in the contract, after 20 or so years of service for most 55-year-olds, that is rather unfair. The normal retirement age is 60. This is what all teachers expect, and plan their life accordingly. Changing this for one cohort seems arbitrary and hence unfair.

Even today, the SED is short of teachers. Our primary schools, with at least five classes, have four teachers on average. It was only recently that the Punjab government promised that no government school would have less than four teachers. So, when we still have not reached the minimum required number of five teachers per school, how does getting rid of 50,000 teachers make sense?

The salary bill in education is large. But this is true of all education departments across the globe. We need a teacher to teach. If the constitutional guarantee under Article 25-A is to provide “free and compulsory education” to all children aged 5-16, and millions of children are still out of school, we need more schools and teachers — not less. We have to find the money for it.

Firing older teachers is not the solution to this problem.

And if the 55-year retirement age did make sense, why not apply it to judges, bureaucrats, generals and other public officials as well?

Other countries are moving in the direction of increasing the age of retirement or removing the age ceiling entirely, as life expectancy is going up and people are productive for longer periods of their lives. The SED wants to move in the opposite direction and not even live up to the promise it made to incoming teachers. They should not go in this direction. But, if they do, we hope the teachers get a good hearing from the judiciary.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2019