An admissions policy to expand diversity

04 June 2014 | Story by Newsroom

The goal of UCT's admissions policy has been '“ and remains '“ to transform the student body into one that is more diverse and representative of the population, while still recruiting the best students available. Progress has been made '“ but transformation is incomplete. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Prof Crain Soudien explains why race remains relevant at UCT.

The proposals are a recalibration of the old policy, with the same goals in mind, taking into account the changing realities of 'race' and class in South Africa since 1994. They will achieve greater racial and socio-economic diversity in our student body, while relying less on 'race' classification for their implementation.

Why we want to move away from reliance on 'race' classification

Apartheid racial constructs were used to distribute power, to create divisions in society, to signal superiority and inferiority, and to promote ethnic loyalties. One of the main goals of the post-1994 South Africa is to transform society into one which does not privilege people, or deny them opportunities, on the basis of 'race'. This is how we understand our Constitutional commitment to non-racialism.

There is general support for the view that the path to that goal requires an interim period of redress, of conscious structuring of opportunities to undo apartheid's legacy of racial inequality. What is contested '“ and thrown into sharp relief when considering admissions policies '“ is the mechanism for applying redress. One school of thought argues that since redress is about countering the effects of discrimination against people classified as African, coloured, or Indian, interventions should simply focus on those who were (or would have been) so classified under apartheid. The other school argues that one must examine both how 'race' discrimination operated under apartheid and the ongoing effects of race-structured inequality, and target affirmative interventions on the basis of those factors directly (for example, to those who have been denied access to good schools or adequate income).

This second school of thought argues that any form of racially based preference firstly requires a system of 'race' classification, which is both legally and morally problematic; and secondly, entrenches a view of the world that links entitlement and access to resources only to one's colour, regardless of one's actual degree of privilege or status in society.

If we can achieve the racial diversity we aspire to at UCT, while moving away from a dependence on using 'race' classification to do so, we believe this would be a positive contribution towards non-racialism. And it seems we can move in this direction, because of the changing alignment of 'race' and class in South Africa over the past two decades.

A shifting alignment between 'race' and class

The old apartheid correspondence of 'race' and class has been shifting, and skin colour is not as strong a determinant of a person's economic advantage or position as it was. In brief, though in the past many black applicants presented lower matriculation results because they came overwhelmingly from poor schools and disadvantaged backgrounds, today many come from good schools and can be admitted on a competitive basis, without the need for reference to their 'race'. Others may be less competitive because there is still some educational disadvantage, through their school or home backgrounds; but the playing fields can be levelled by taking these backgrounds into account '“ again, without reference to their 'race'.

Thus, instead of using just 'race' as the proxy for disadvantage, we propose applying a hybrid model that is still 'race' conscious, where '“ as explained later '“ we will continue to acknowledge 'race', but will develop an approach that seeks to tease out the factors that are causing disadvantage more directly. These include the school one attended, parents' education, home language, and whether or not one is reliant on social grants. This brings us much closer to how 'race' actually operates in our society.

The proposed policy recognises that redress and social justice are promoted, not through privileging people just because of their skin colour, but because of how legislated 'race' discrimination impacted and still impacts on lives. By taking into account factors such as home background and the impact of not studying in one's first language, for example, we hope to ensure we are drawing the most talented students '“ both advantaged and disadvantaged '“ into our student body.

Why 'race' remains relevant

We have found it necessary to keep 'race' in the policy for three reasons:

Firstly, the goal of greater demographic representivity remains, and we still have a way to go to achieve it. Consequently, we will continue to set targets using 'race', and monitor outcomes using 'race'.


Secondly, because in many programmes at UCT, competition for places is so great that the marks required to be selected are very high '“ combined with the fact that the number of very high- performing white applicants is still so much greater than the number of black applicants '“ even after weighting students' scores for disadvantage, it is still necessary to select them for diversity in itself.

Thirdly, retaining 'race' as a criterion for selecting a portion of the class is a recognition of the fact that 'race' still matters, because racism still exists; there is still racial discrimination, and stereotyping of expectations by 'race' '“ all of which affect the performance of black students even at advantaged schools, just because they are black. Removing 'race' altogether would suggest that 'race' no longer matters.

Our ideal is that one day, 'race' should not matter. That day is not yet here. Racism continues to manifest itself in many guises. We need to be vigilant to how these take effect in our lives.

The hybrid, race-conscious admissions policy proposed would help the university achieve a substantial move away from a reliance on race- classification to distribute opportunities. Under the proposed policy and for most programmes, about 75% of the class will be selected without 'race' being taken into account. Instead, the obstacles people have overcome to achieve the marks they have '“ usually as a consequence of apartheid '“ will be considered.

Read more:

Proposed admissions policy aimed at diversity and redress

FAQs: student admissions policy

Monday Monthly's student admissions focus

Full text of VC's April 2014 student admissions proposal

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