UCT’s new student admission policy explained

03 July 2014 | Story Newsroom Photo Michael Hammond.
UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price.
UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price.

The University of Cape Town Council approved in principle a new admissions policy model that will incorporate race as one of several factors to be considered in assessing an applicant's historic disadvantage. Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price explains the reasoning behind this new admissions policy.

The goal of the admissions policy of the University of Cape Town is to transform the student body into one that is more diverse and representative of the population while recruiting the best students available. Twenty years on from the advent of democracy, some progress has been made but transformation is incomplete.

The university has proposed a modified admissions policy that is a recalibration, with the same goals in mind, taking account of the changing realities of race and class in South Africa since 1994.

In brief, whereas in the past almost all black applicants to the University of Cape Town, or UCT, were uncompetitive in terms of their school-leaving results because overwhelmingly they came from poor schools and disadvantaged backgrounds, now many come from good schools and are admitted on a competitive basis in terms of school-leaving results.

Others may be less competitive on this basis because there is still educational disadvantage through their school or home backgrounds '“ but the playing fields can be levelled by taking these backgrounds into account, without reference to race.

However, while these selection procedures can successfully recruit many black students, there are still so many more strong white applicants than there are strong black applicants that we would not achieve adequate transformation of the class without a further explicit, racially-based selection mechanism.

Thus the university's new admissions policy is a hybrid procedure using three mechanisms for selection: one part of the class selected just on marks; a second component selected based on performance and ability, which takes account of school and home background; and a third component driven by achieving demographic targets based on an applicant's race and performance.

Note that no student would be offered a place who did not exceed a minimum threshold that predicts a high probability of success.

Given the current profile of applicants and the competitiveness of UCT admissions, depending on the faculty, on average 75% of students could be selected without reference to race, while 25% would be race based.

The proposed hybrid procedure will still enable UCT to increase the number of both black and disadvantaged students.

We believe this proposed change to policy is consistent with our long-term commitment to a non-racial society, endorsed by South Africa's constitution.

In making this commitment we do not seek to take away people's right to racial identity: people should be free to identify themselves however they wish. But we are committed to the development of a society that does not distribute resources and opportunities based on one's membership of or classification into race groups.

Policy rationale

For over two decades, UCT has had in place admissions policies that explicitly attempted to increase the numbers of African, coloured (mixed-race), Indian and Chinese students '“ referred to as "black" for the purposes of redress.

This has been necessary because for many courses where selection is competitive, if we were to rank applicants simply using their school-leaving National Senior Certificate, or NSC, marks, there would have been very few African students selected.

For example, in the case of the medical class of 200 first years, there would have been about 10 African students. There are several reasons why this is of concern to us and to society more generally. Here are the primary ones.

We want to promote fairness and social justice. It is clear that most of the variation between students' NSC marks is much more directly related to the schools they went to and other socio-economic factors, than to ability or motivation or hard work.

Clearly we cannot only use marks because it is unfair to students from less privileged backgrounds in further denying them crucial life opportunities.

We are concerned with social justice as it affects both the individual and the community from which he or she comes. We need an approach that acknowledges circumstances that may impede opportunities for the individual and those that operate at a broader social level and are responsible for either discriminating against a group of people or advantaging them.

Our redress policies must, therefore, be sensitive to both the individual and group experience.

We want to attract the most talented students. Because many such students will have gone to poor schools and have lower marks, they would not be selected if the selection process only considers marks. Yet we know that, given the opportunity, they will become top performers.

We are concerned to produce a new generation of professionals, leaders, intellectuals, political actors and analysts who are more demographically representative of the population. It would be very dangerous for society if, when the medical or law class graduates in 2019 '“ 25 years after first democratic elections '“ a small minority were African.

It is also an important change strategy that there should be role models for students from historically excluded groups to emulate.

We think that the education of all students benefits from diversity within the classroom, since the different histories, cultures, languages, and ways of seeing and being contribute both to the analysis and understanding of subject material, and to developing the social competencies of students.

Current admissions policy

The current admissions policy has two elements.

The first is setting targets for each population group in each programme. Targets are adjusted each year based on three considerations: (i) aspiration increasingly to reflect the demography of the region and country; (ii) determination of the minimum threshold mark for each programme below which, experience tells us, students are unlikely to succeed; and (iii) the likely pool of applicants with good enough results in the appropriate subjects for the particular programme.

The new proposals do not make any change to this component of the policy.

The second component of the admissions policy describes the process for selecting students and rationing scarce places to meet the targets.

The principle underlying the selection mechanism has been that talent is randomly distributed across population groups, and that the top few percent of African applicants are likely to be as talented and motivated as the top few percent of white students, even though they may have different marks.

The current policy places black South African students in separate baskets according to their legacy apartheid population group (race), where they have declared this; and places all undeclared applicants, all white applicants and all international applicants in an "open" category basket; ranks them academically within their own group, and selects the top few percent from each list, depending on how many places we are targeting for that group.

This achieves the goals of selecting the top students and also ensures that the playing fields are more level. It also addresses diversity and redress goals.

This explains why in most programmes, the cut-off mark for white students is higher than the cut-off marks for African and coloured students. They are in different baskets and not competing against each other, and the concentration of white students in good schools means that marks in the white basket will be much higher than within the black baskets.

The system has served us very well for over a decade. It has achieved remarkable diversity, with the majority of students now being black.

So why change what appears to be working? And in particular, why change if we have not yet reached our targets for African and "coloured" students? Because circumstances have changed, and because we can do better.

Why modify the admissions policy?

The motivation for adapting the policy has three drivers: first, an ideological commitment to non-racialism in the long term; second, a change in the educational preparation of many black applicants, resulting in them no longer being significantly disadvantaged and needing affirmative action interventions; third, recognition that as the profile of applicants has become more middle-class, the current race-basket approach fails in selecting disadvantaged students. There is also a technical factor regarding the problems of doing race classification.

Commitment to non-racialism

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 the society into one that does not privilege people or deny them opportunities on the basis of race. This is how we understand the constitutional commitment to non-racialism.

There is, however, 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 whether redress policies should be structured on the apartheid system of racial classification or on the intermediate determinants of inequality '“ that is, on how racism and racial oppression work to create and perpetuate inequality.

One school of thought argues that since redress is about countering the effects of discrimination against people classified as African, coloured, Indian or Chinese, the interventions should simply focus on those who were, or would have been, so classified under apartheid.

The other school argues that one must examine 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 lobby 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 which links entitlements and access to resources only to one's colour regardless of one's actual degree of privilege or status in society.

Thus, if we can achieve the racial diversity we aspire to for 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 progressive realignment of race and class in South Africa over the past two decades.

Black applicants have had better schooling

Historically, there has been a very close correlation between the categories of race and disadvantage. Most African and coloured applicants were poor, most of their parents poorly educated, and most attended township or rural schools. Race has been an excellent proxy for disadvantage.

Furthermore, even for students who are middle-class and have gone to good schools, educational performance is heavily affected by one's cultural capital '“ a determinant of performance that crosses generations and therefore should be expected to reflect the circumstances of the parents and grandparents of our current applicants.

It is the race classification of the parents, whose life opportunities were structured by apartheid, which significantly affects the degree of educational disadvantage of the children.

Over the last few years, our research shows that the circumstances of black applicants have changed in various ways. Increasing numbers of black applicants are coming out of excellent schools with very good NSC results, often from wealthy families. They can get into UCT in the general open competitive pool.

They do not have to be in a different basket competing only with others of the same race. While there remain differences in cultural capital, which may affect performance, these can be compensated for through weighting marks using direct measures of parental disadvantage. We can achieve substantial diversity without needing to select students on the basis of race.

Not only is affirmative action unnecessary for these black students, but there is a legitimate question about whether well-performing black students at previously white schools remain disadvantaged and, if so, to what extent, and whether it is fair to white classmates that black students should get in at the expense of white students who may even be less privileged.

The need to recruit disadvantaged students

While we affirm the need for racial diversity at UCT, we have always emphasised the need to take socio-economic disadvantage into account.

Over the last 20 years, the old colonial and apartheid correspondence of race and class has been shifting. About a half of black students at UCT are now middle-class. No longer can we assume that all black students are economically disadvantaged.

We aspire to greater socio-economic diversity '“ in the interests of fairness, and equal opportunities. We would be doing better if we could recruit the most talented poor black and white students whose marks, we know, will not be competitive with students from good schools.

Some difficulties with race classification

A relatively minor concern is the current dependence on students self-identifying their "race". This leads to a variety of problems.

Some students, including disadvantaged students of colour, on principle do not want to declare their "race", which they disavow. This leads to them not benefiting from the redress policy even though they may still be suffering the legacy of educational disadvantage.

Other students willfully misclassify themselves in relation to the old categories '“ particularly whites and Indians claiming to be coloured. Since there is no legislated way of classifying people, this puts UCT admissions officers in the untenable position of having to decide how such applicants should really be classified. This we refuse to do. There are also significant numbers of applicants who may legitimately classify themselves as black but should not be beneficiaries of redress policies at the expense of others (black or white).

More direct measures of disadvantage

To reduce our dependence on race as a proxy for disadvantage we have, over the last few years, been researching more direct measures of disadvantage.

Those we have found to be useful include the quality of school attended, the education levels of parents and grandparents, dependence on social grants, and the language spoken by the parents where this is different from the medium of school education '“ English or Afrikaans.

Our application forms now request information about all these aspects of applicants' backgrounds. From this information, which notably does not include any reference to race, we propose to compute a disadvantage weight.

Not surprisingly, most of the people who would be identified as disadvantaged through the use of these criteria are in fact "coloured" or African.

Using such measures in a selection process still achieves racial diversity but in addition it promotes some increase in socio-economic diversity within all population groups.

Moreover, it enables us to look at and quantify the experience of the individual rather than assuming that all members of a population group have had a similar experience in terms of background and schooling.


The proposed hybrid, race-conscious admissions policy achieves a substantial move away from reliance on race-classification in that for most programmes, about 75% of the class will be selected without race being taken into account.

Most black students will be admitted in open competition, recognising the obstacles most have overcome to achieve the marks they have.

Racial stereotyping will be reduced, since most black students will not be admitted because of their race. And it moves us towards the long-term goal of not needing race classification to distribute opportunities.

The policy recognises that redress and social justice are promoted not through privileging people just because they are black, but because of how legislated racial discrimination impacted and still impacts on their lives '“ their home backgrounds, parents' education and cultural capital, the quality of schools and the impact of not studying in one's first language.

Yet we have found it necessary to keep "race" in the policy for three reasons:

First, the goal of greater demographic representivity remains and we still have a way to go to achieve it. Consequently, the first component of the admissions policy '“ setting targets using race, and monitoring outcomes using race '“ remains unchanged.

Secondly, because at a university like UCT, where competition for places is high and the number of very high-performing white applicants is so much higher than the number of black applicants, even when weighted for disadvantage, it is necessary to select students for diversity per se '“ that is, because they are black.

Thirdly, retaining race as a criterion for selecting a portion of the class is a recognition of the fact that race still matters because there is still racism, racial discrimination, stereotyping of expectations by race, all of which actually affect the performance of black students even at advantaged schools.

Removing race altogether would suggest that race no longer matters.

Our ideal is that one day it should not. But for now, race as cultural capital, as identity, as a basis of current discrimination, as legacy of past exclusion, as sense of integration or alienation in institutions such as private schools and universities '“ that race is real.

The debates around it must be vibrant and tough. Erasing race from the admissions policy would do a disservice to achieving our ideals.

Read more:

FAQs: student admissions policy

Monday Monthly's student admissions focus

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