Pakistan’s 15-year-old record-breaker struggles to find university place

The brightest 15-year-old in the world can’t find a place at university because she’s too young.

Sitara Brooj Akbar moved from Rabwah, Pakistan to the UAE last year after breaking international records in passing examinations.

She is the youngest pupil to reach the top level, Band 9, in the International English Language Testing System. IELTS Band 9 qualifies her as an “expert user” of English, with “full operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding”.

Top universities in the United States and Britain, including Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, require an IELTS grade of only Band 7 – but Sitara is not old enough for a visa.

“The universities there cannot sponsor a student or offer them a student visa if they are under the age of 18. There is an age restriction on university students because of visa regulations,” she said.

Sitara’s exam record-breaking began at the age of 9, when she became the youngest Pakistani to pass O-level chemistry. At 10, she set a world record by passing O-level biology.

She passed O-level English, physics and mathematics at 11, becoming the youngest child in the world to pass five O levels. She then sat A levels at the age of 13.

Even more remarkably, Sitara achieved her exam success without setting foot inside a school since the third grade.

“My parents realised that I could not learn in a traditional school learning environment, so they opted for home learning,” she said.

“I have done most of my studies sitting at a shelf in the kitchen while my mother was cooking.”

Sitara, the eldest of five children from a Punjab province,moved to Sharjah with her family nine months ago in search of higher education.

But high tuition fees proved beyond her family’s means, and the visa regulations mean she cannot study abroad.

“I have applied to all the leading universities in the USA and UK but they respond with one sentence: that they are very impressed with my academic accomplishments but I am too young to get a student visa,” Sitara said.

The British Council UAE is trying to help. “Despite Sitara’s very exceptional educational track record, her young age is a barrier,” said Faraz Waqar, its head of marketing and communications.

“Undergraduate programmes in the UK and around the world currently do not accept people as young as her. We at the British Council will try our best to guide and help Sitara towards her eventual educational goal. There are no guarantees, we can only try.

“We wish her the very best for her bright future. She deserves all the support after all her efforts and struggle.”

Sitara’s ambition is to be a researcher in biochemistry. “There are many mysteries unsolved and many cures yet to be found; I want to make my contribution to humanity through science.” Her father said they moved to UAE so that Sitara could obtain the best education.

“But we have now realised that seeking higher education in the UAE is more expensive than Europe or the US,” said Mohammed Akbar Bhutta, 43, a purchasing manager for a private company. He said because of security concerns he could not send his daughter to university in Pakistan.

“It’s not only about the age barrier. In Pakistan, security is another major challenge. And I cannot send my daughter to any Pakistani university with such life-threatening fear,” said Mr Bhutta. He is educating all his five children at home.

“We have lost faith in traditional school learning. They don’t give individual attention to every child and do not teach them according to their specific talent and skills,” he said.

He is concerned that Sitara is wasting time because of the age issue.

“It is very painful to see her agony and her time loss,” he said.