UCT defends 'extreme' admissions policy

Whether through employment or education, transformation and affirmative action strategies have become part of daily life in South Africa, and recent media attention on the admissions policies of the University of Cape Town (UCT) has raised some important questions.

Specifically, are these measures vital to atone for the apartheid past or are they just another form of discrimination, aimed at a different group of people?

Following a bout of letters published in Cape Town newspapers last week, Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon attacked the university’s policies in his column on SA Today, criticising its use of race as a primary admissions requirement to certain medical and law degrees.

UCT assesses its undergraduate applicants based on a points system—similar to that used by other South African tertiary institutions.
Unlike other institutions, however, UCT’s 2007 admission requirements clearly distinguish between different race groups in stipulating the number of points required for specific degrees.

A BSc in physiotherapy, for instance, requires that black and coloured applicants obtain 34 points in order to be considered, while Indian applicants need to obtain 41 points and “Open” applicants need to obtain 43 points.

An almost 10-point advantage for black and coloured applicants in some cases saw Leon chastising the university for “cravenly enacting the ANC’s [African National Congress’s] obsessive, race-based reclassification of South Africa”.

“I think there is a lot of pressure from government,” Leon told the Mail & Guardian Online. “UCT goes way beyond … these measures are very extreme.”

“These are UCT’s measures. We believe in them,” UCT registrar Hugh Amoore affirmed, “Whether they happen to tie in with the transformation and affirmative action or agendas of the day is of secondary concern.”

‘Appropriate measures’

Section 37 of the 1997 Higher Education Act states that in their admissions policies, all South African universities are required to comply with “appropriate measures for the redress of past inequalities”, but they “may not unfairly discriminate in any way”.

“We believe that they [the admission requirements] pass constitutional muster,” said Amoore, “[and] that the discrimination in them is fair and justifiable.”

Leon wrote, however, that through these measures “the university is actually carrying out government’s programme with a zeal far in excess of the Act’s section 37 (1)”.

“It is the mandate of each individual institution to publish and implement an admissions policy that is both fair and transparent,” said Professor Duma Malaza, CEO of Higher Education South Africa.

The M&G Online looked at the admission requirements of medical faculties of similar institutions and found that although previously disadvantaged race groups are preferred in most instances, UCT is the only university with such formal affirmative action measures written into the application process.

Like UCT, the universities of the Witwatersrand, Free State and Pretoria also assess applicants based on a points system. However, at these institutions the same number of points is required for all applicants, regardless of race. They all maintain that applicants are judged academically, and no differentiation is made between racial groups.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal, however, does work within a quota system. “But there is competition within the race groups,” said admissions officer Deliwe Ikalila, with black students competing with each other, white students competing with each other, and so on. Those who reach the highest percentage in their matric results, in each of the four race groups, are accepted.

Selection methods

As well as attaining the required number of points, applicants to UCT’s health sciences faculty are also expected to complete a questionnaire and take a national placement test that assesses their suitability for their chosen field of study.

“These selection methods are the result of conscious policies to ensure, first, that those we admit are able to succeed and, secondly, that the resulting class will have significant numbers of African [black] and coloured students.

“The UCT admissions policy of the year 2007 is an attempt to ensure we move to such a [equal opportunity] society,” Amoore said, to which Leon responded by saying he “disagree[s] absolutely, profoundly and completely”.

“Categorisations using racial difference are very bad news for non-racialism,” the DA leader said.

Calling the university’s policies a “crude racial system”, he questioned whether children of Cabinet ministers who live in upmarket areas, attend private schools and happen to be black should qualify for these rewards. “There should be measures to help the best people who can benefit from the education system.”

Amoore said the university weighs past educational adversity at the level of racial groups as opposed to individuals, and its policies are based on this. Different requirements are set for applicants of different backgrounds “to compensate for generations of educational and socio-economic disadvantage”.

“It is too easy in the constitutional state in which we live to forget the ravages caused by the educational provisions of native affairs, bantu education and the Department of Education and care training, or of coloured affairs,” Amoore said, “too easy to forget that even today most township schools and many rural schools still reflect this legacy in provision, in the qualifications and experience of the teachers, and in the socio-economic conditions [poverty] of their communities.”

‘Insult’

But Leon was adamant in his weekly column that “not only does UCT’s current approach to admissions not recognise individual worth, it [also] insults the gifted black student by negating her high marks and insisting that her place is not dependent on her particular effort or ability”.

“Without these policies, the MBChB class, for example, would be predominantly white and Indian; there would be very few black men and women doctors in the graduating class,” Amoore said.

With these measures in place, black students accounted for 72% of UCT’s MBChB classes last year, but Amoore said that “institutionally we believe we need to do more”.

“It’s not the job of a university to churn out exact proportions of the population,” Leon told the M&G Online. The university “reinforces the baleful notion that some race groups are innately inferior to others, because they require special treatment”, he wrote on SA Today.

“Access to higher education is invariably controversial and politically fraught in contexts such as South Africa where parity in educational provision has not yet been achieved,” Higher Education South Africa’s Malaza explained. “Extraordinary measures are needed to achieve the kind of equity targets that will reflect … the demographics of our society.”

Numerous attempts to contact the Department of Education for comment on this matter failed.

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