/ 14 May 2015

The students

The Students

This article is the most technical in our series because it presents many statistics. We apologise if this annoys readers, but these statistics need to be understood in order to talk knowledgeably about UCT’s transformation.

UCT’s stated goal is to have a “non-racial university” in which “historical apartheid categories no longer have relevance to the probability that a student will be admitted or will pass.” There is no meaningful scientific way to divide human beings into races (read this book for an explanation). Until 2013, people who applied to UCT were asked to identify their race. Since 2014 prospective students indicate what their parents’ race classification was during apartheid. 

This, in principle, is verifiable if there is a dispute, and is directly linked to the principle of redressing apartheid’s wrongs. Applicants to the university are not obliged to say what their parents’ racial classification was, but if they do not, and their parents are black, Indian or coloured (in the apartheid classification), they will not reap the benefits of the university’s admission policy to black, coloured and Indian students. 

UCT’s student body has changed: In 2008, 51% of the 17,896 South African students whose race was known were black, Indian or coloured. By 2013 this had risen to 58% of 20,078  South African students. Of the four apartheid categories, whites were in 2013 still the largest group at 42%, but this had dropped from 49% in 2008. Also, 63% of the university’s 4,290 international students in 2013 were from Africa outside South Africa. Another 1,962 students, or 7%, in 2013 were of unknown race or nationality. Postgraduates are about 34% of the student body. Just over half of South African postgraduate students are white.                 

How are students doing?
In August 2013 the Council for Higher Education published A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa. It lists these concerns: Excluding UNISA, only about 25% of students in South Africa graduate in regulation time (e.g. three years for a three-year degree). Only 35% of all students (including UNISA) graduate within five years (48% excluding UNISA).

Even taking into account students who take longer than five years, or who return after dropping out, more than half of students who enroll in universities in South Africa never graduate. White completion rates are on average 50% higher than African rates. Only about 5% of apartheid-category black and coloured youth succeed in any form of higher education. UCT’s Institutional Planning Department tracks student performance. 

The institute provided GroundUp with this spreadsheet (see the sheet named ‘Tab 17’). These data show what has happened to students five years after entering UCT from 2005 to 2009 in five faculties — Commerce, Humanities (which includes Arts and Social Science), Engineering and Law. In other words, this data is almost up-to-date, because 2013 is the five-year endpoint for students entering in 2009. 

Some important facts can be seen: The percentage of students graduating within five years was steady for the 2005 to 2008 intakes at about 70% but dropped to 61% in 2009. The reason for this is unknown but, according to people in the university’s Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) we spoke to, it might be related to the 2009 intake being the first to write the new matriculation exam (National Senior Certificate) introduced in 2008. 

The drop was seen across all races, but is not as substantial for white students. About half of apartheid-category black students are graduating in five years (less than half when 2009 is considered) compared to about 80% of apartheid-category white students. About 65% of apartheid-category coloured students are graduating (but only 53% of the 2009 intake). About 65 to 70% of apartheid-category Indian students are graduating (but only 57% of the 2009 intake). 

The percentage of students who drop out even though their academic records are in good standing is about the same (7 to 10%) across all apartheid race categories. About a third of apartheid-category black students are refused readmission to (or excluded from) the university on academic grounds, and this is much higher than any of the other race categories. Exclusions on academic grounds are highest in the Engineering and Science faculties, which is not surprising because of their mathematics and science requirements, subjects that are generally in a poor state in high schools. We do not have detailed statistics on the Health Sciences faculty (the degree is six years, so a five-year analysis wouldn’t make sense). 

In 2012 Health Sciences enrolment of apartheid category South African white students was 30% compared to 40% apartheid category black students. Statistically, although apartheid-category black, coloured and Indian race are doing worse than white students, a large number are graduating. Across the five faculties considered, 815 black, Indian and coloured undergraduate students from the 2009 intake have graduated (up from 748 for the 2005 intake) compared to 905 white students. UCT staff we spoke to cited both the type of schools that students attended and school results as predictors of performance at university. 

A consequence of the admissions policy is that, on average, the white students who enter university have much better matric results than those in the other apartheid race categories. “By raising the admission requirements for white students, we’ve removed mediocre white students from the student body,” a professor told GroundUp. Black students are consequently competing against the very brightest white matriculants, and this adds to the sense of alienation felt and expressed by many black students at UCT. A further consequence of the distribution of students in many classes is what a professor in a science department told us.

Though  no conscious decision had been taken to that effect,  his department’s honours course (4th year) was getting more difficult, he says, to meet the needs of the particularly bright students who had made it that far.  He laments that the level had become even higher than that at most good American universities, at one of which he’d taught. Black students, on average, attend schools with fewer resources than white students and this is likely a critical predictor of performance. 

At the moment the university is collecting data on the correlation between school attended and university performance, to facilitate the new admissions policy which gives an admission advantage  to students from poorly resourced schools.   Suellen Shay of CHED says, “Harvard University will trumpet its diversity, but it doesn’t have to deal with educational disadvantage like UCT does. We have a diversity of preparedness at UCT.” She emphasises that UCT must succeed at meeting this challenge. Nevertheless, she also points out that “UCT gets the cream of students, black and white. Few candidates get below a B aggregate in school.” 

The role of class differences between students, including between black students, was highlighted by an anecdote a lecturer told us. “An Indian or coloured woman, I think, made the argument that ipads and laptops were necessities and that no-one took notes with a pen and paper anymore. There was general laughter. The uncomfortable thing was that I could see many black students looking mortified as they sat there with pen and paper.  For me the episode demonstrated a general lack of sensitivity to the different class backgrounds among students. 

She did not mean to be snobby, but her comments and the laughter made the poorer students feel bad, I could see.  So I said that ‘actually it is a really good idea to take notes with a pen and paper; it helps consolidate your learning’.” The university has several programmes in place to assist students with their academic work. Explaining all of them would take up too much space. Whether these programmes are sufficient or appropriate will also be debated. Take a look, for example, at the 100 UP project that identifies promising students in under-resourced schools and prepares them over several years for university. 

Another form of assistance is the Academic Development Programme (ADP) which is almost entirely made up of apartheid-category black South African students. Essentially, this programme, which has been in existence for over two decades, is an ‘extended’ curriculum and involves students doing first year over 18 months to two years. Most programmes have admitted students to ADP programmes based on their school results. More recently some programmes have shifted to strongly advising students to join ADP programme, based on their first test results at university. The student performance spreadsheet shows how ADP students are doing. Five-year cohort completion rates are bleak but these are students who have been admitted with lower admission points. 

The absolute number of ADP students who pass within five years is increasing, and the percentage might be too. From 177 graduates among the 2005 intake (38%) the number rose  to 231 (42%) among the 2009 intake. In part three we’ll consider the university’s curricula, and in part four we’ll look at the most controversial issue of all: the racial composition of UCT’s academic staff.