IT was at present reported in the newspapers that the Punjab School Education Department ( SED ) is contemplating retirement all of the teachers who are 55 years of age or older. The present leaving age is 60. There are 50,000-odd teachers in Punjab, out of a few 400,000-odd entire public segment teachers, who are 55 and above. The plan currently being contemplated would, by force, send home 50,000 people. The option has not been taken yet but, if it is, it will likely be before the upcoming budget.
Though the records will not point out the reasons why the SED is mulling over this option, it could only be 1 of the following. The income charge for teachers is challenging for the SED to sustain. Given the crunch on economic resources, it would not be unexpected if retiring senior teachers is seen as a way of minimizing the income bill, even if temporarily, to ride out this crunch period.
One more reason could be that over-55 teachers are considered ‘dead wood’. They are thought to be weak teachers why, given the stage of their profession, cannot be qualified to be better. Getting rid of them ( though with pension and other benefits due to them ) might be the only good idea in this case. The SED’s qualification needs for being a teacher totally changed. The minimum requirement for entering the division like a tutor is now graduating. Earlier, even matriculation and intermediate qualifiers with a coaching certificate could become teachers. An important number of the 55-and-above crowd are not graduates. Is this an attempt to change the composition of teachers in Punjab?
The graduating need cannot be applied retrospectively. Knowing this, getting rid of all 55-year-olds is a simpler option. This means that any good teachers amongst the 50,000, such as those who might be graduates but are 55 or elderly, will also be targeted. This may remain an issue for any age-based plan. The division could have asked all present 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 plan is being considered: 55-and-above are mainly non-graduates, they have a higher % of improperly performing teachers who can now no longer be trained or encouraged to develop, 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 signed up the program, they were given the understanding that if they performed at a certain stage 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 agreement 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 youthful co-workers, why not have a performance-based policy for the end? There must be a few in the elderly cohort who are doing well. Why make a policy that penalizes them?
The division knows that any performance-based policy that they come up with will get challenged in courts and will be hard to apply administratively. So they are exploring the simpler option. But the simpler option might not be ‘right’ choice. The army does retire its non-commissioned staff at 45 or so. But this comparison does not hold. Armed forces have needs for physical condition and strenuous work; the job takes a certain level of bodily capability that is a lot more possible for younger people. Instructing does not have such needs. To the contrary, a lot more experience — if the teacher is reflective, and open to learning and increasing — can be an asset.
Evenly significantly, it is the change in the agreement, after 20 or so years of service for most 55-year-olds, that is rather unfair. The normal leaving age is 60. This is what almost all teachers expect, and plan their life accordingly. Replacing this for 1 cohort seems arbitrary and hence unfair.
Even today, the SED is short of teachers. Our primary schools, with a minimum of 5 classes, have 4 teachers on average. It was only currently that the Punjab govt promised that no govt school would have lower than 4 teachers. So, when we still have not reached the smallest required variety of 5 teachers per school, how does getting rid of 50,000 teachers make sense?
The salary bill in education is big. But this is true of all training divisions across the globe. We need a teacher to teach. If the constitutional guarantee under Article 25-A is to provide “free and necessary education” to all infants aged 5-16, and millions of infants are still out of school, we need a lot more schools and teachers — not fewer. We have to find the money for it. Firing older teachers is not the solution to this issue. 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 shifting in the direction of improving the age of retirement or removing the age ceiling totally, 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 an excellent court date 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.