Student access, support and success

04 November 2022

How is the institution supporting diverse students with disparate backgrounds to be included, to fully participate and to succeed within UCT?

Student Access, Support and Success
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What is being tested?

Integration Student profile B.1 Progress has been made towards attaining a more diverse student and graduate profile; with a documented % shift in the previous 12 months.
Integration Student support B.2 Students can access educational and psychosocial support.
Integration Engaging with students on diversity B.3 At least one faculty/department-wide learning activity, dialogue or discussion on issues affecting students that are specific to the themes of diversity, inclusivity and/or transformation.
Integration Anonymous feedback B.4 The faculty/department has an anonymous feedback and complaint mechanism or referral system in place to address student and staff grievances.

What does the benchmark reveal?

Students are the university’s biggest and arguably most important stakeholder. For transformation to be effective, students, especially students who are historically or currently marginalised, need to be able to access educational and psychosocial support, meaningfully and fully participate, and succeed or grow within the institution. No department or faculty met all criteria of this benchmark, with faculties scoring somewhat higher than non-academic departments. While the focus in 2021 was on the shift to emergency online teaching and learning, this shift led to a focus on the parity of participation, rather than on ensuring, centring and critically engaging with issues related to transformation, inclusivity and diversity.

Integration In 2021 many faculties and departments met benchmark B.2. This means that many faculties and departments provided psychosocial and educational support, often in response to the challenges, deficits and disparities exacerbated by COVID-19 and remote teaching and learning. In addition, faculties consistently tracked their student demographic profile, and some non-academic departments have engaged with student struggles. Given students’ status as UCT’s biggest stakeholder, it’s important for non-academic departments to understand student struggles.
Integration Fewer faculties and departments reported meeting benchmarks B.3 and B.4. Similarly to previous years, few entities engaged students on issues related to TDI which affect them. Where interventions were held with students, they were often once-off and likely had a limited impact. Some said it was harder to host such engagements online, and remote teaching and learning led lecturers to prioritise core work. This suggests that TDI is not core to engagements with or relationships between staff and students. Lastly, few departments or faculties have an anonymous complaints and feedback mechanism that staff and students can access. Departments or faculties usually refer students to institutional services, but do not track whether the issues were resolved.

UCT’s student demographic profile in 2021

Student enrolments
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While the university has made some progress towards student demographic transformation, black South African students are still under-represented at an undergraduate and postgraduate level, with white students over-represented at both levels. In addition, the number of black and coloured students declines at postgraduate levels, while white and international students increase at that level. It’s also important and revealing to note that many students (between 8–30% depending on level) don’t declare their race – this could mean students don’t identify with the racial categories, are resistant to the categories, or may be thinking about race differently to the university and its TDI agents. While the number of students with disabilities is relatively small compared to the overall number of UCT students, UCT provides unique and in-depth support. The next section shares information on support provided to students with disability.

Student enrolments by gender
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Slightly more women than men enrol at UCT at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. While the number of persons who identify outside the gender binary or as gender non-conforming is quite small (between 0.1 and 0.2%), it’s interesting to note that a minute number of persons did not declare their gender. This could mean that the majority of students identify with the gender binary, or more likely, that the gender binary is so entrenched at UCT that few students understand or acknowledge gender beyond the binary. In addition, heteronormativity, cisnormativity and SGBV is entrenched in South Africa, which may lead students to be reluctant to reveal their non-binary gender for fear of victimisation. While UCT offers unique protections for gender diverse persons under the Inclusivity Policy for Sexual Orientation, this may not be enough to tackle the entrenched nature of discrimination and harassment.

Which actions contributed to this benchmark?

Actions undertaken in 2021 focused on supporting students during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The support attempted to respond to the specific challenges facing students during the lockdown and remote learning. This included: (1) offering psychosocial and education support which was sensitive to socio-economic, racial and other disparities (CHED and DSA); (2) development of digital resources and tools for students (Commerce and GSB); (3) consolidating and connecting institutional and faculty student support efforts (Humanities and Law); (4) creating student-led events for learning and reflection on TDI and heritage (IAPO); (5) ongoing psychosocial and other support through the DSA for students in residences, student societies and students more broadly; (6) specific support through the OIC for students with disabilities, students experiencing SGBV or other forms of discrimination, harassment and violence; and (7) development of mechanisms for students to raise concerns about issues they are facing directly with faculties or departments. Efforts undertaken centred empathetic listening, recognised socio-economic inequality and its effects, and attempted to support students from where they were. Some faculties and departments initiated efforts to reach out to and engage students using social media platforms (in addition to institutional platforms such as Vula) to create spaces for open engagement. The OIC developed a toolkit titled “Student Inclusion…Periodt! A Constellation of Resources on Transformation, Inclusivity and Diversity”, which offers students digital resources on TDI.

Beyond these interventions, ongoing efforts include supporting writing and numeracy competencies among marginalised students; having specific student support or development officers, units or deputy deans; and tracking the student demographic profile. Where faculty or departmental services don’t exist, entities often refer students to institutional offerings, such as the Student Wellness Service.

A small number of departments and faculties initiated or participated in fundraising efforts for marginalised students who were excluded from UCT during the stressful period of COVID-19 lockdowns and the shift to online learning. Further, some entities attempted to understand the specific challenges facing black and women students, with some hosting learning events and seminars on themes related to race and gender. This allowed faculties to better respond to the needs of marginalised students in the teaching and learning space.

Who contributed to this benchmark?

Seven faculties and five non-academic departments contributed to this benchmark.

How effective were the actions?

This benchmark frames the inclusion of marginalised students in relation to their ability to access the university, fully participate and succeed and grow within the university. While the university has taken strides to ensure access for marginalised persons, this access is to a university environment where racism and SGBV are present. The focus on parity of participation and access to psychosocial support services in student transformation interventions shifts the focus away from broader debates on the ways in which racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity and colonial ways of being and doing are still very present at UCT. For example, students continue to be framed as necessarily junior or subordinate to staff, and student complaints about racism are not meaningfully dealt with – for example, see these articles on leading transformation at UCT and recent cases of racism. In addition, students protested to highlight their financial struggles included the continued struggle related to historical debt. For the benchmark to be achieved more effectively, critical discussions and actions need to be developed that meaningfully respond to the realities of students, including racism, SGBV and socio-economic disparities that disrupt students’ ability to fully participate and succeed at UCT.


If transformation efforts do not metamorphosise or positively change the material/economic, social or political realities of students, these efforts remain focused on transformation as rhetoric rather than action. For example, tracking demographic data is useful, as is providing psychosocial support and hosting sensitisation and awareness-raising events. These are basic actions that are likely to encourage students who have been historically excluded and to foster a more welcoming environment. However, such actions are only minimum standards; they are unlikely to transform economic or social lived realities. A stronger focus on transforming the material and social realities of students is recommended.

An example of a good practice

The Faculty of Science developed and disseminated a range of student support resources. For example, the faculty Vula site has a “Study Toolkit” that includes:

  • tips to stay on track, including exam preparation tips
  • academic reading and writing resources
  • information about and links to the UCT Writing Centre and Library
  • links to various ICTS Services and LinkedIn Learning resources.

Another useful example from the Science faculty is a three-part orientation titled, “Mathematics at University”. This intervention provides information to help first-year students better navigate the discipline. The first lesson includes videos made by students, with messages such as: “It's normal to feel anxious, but you deserve to be here” and “Work consistently and get lots of practice”. This makes the connection between providing psychosocial and educationalsupport to students.

Transformation special or institutional projects: Department of Student Affairs and Disability Services

The Department of Student Affairs (DSA): The DSA played an important role in supporting vulnerable staff and students during 2021. For example:

  • The Student Wellness Service (SWS), in partnership with Independent Counselling and Advisory Services(ICAS), has developed a crisis mobile application to ensure that students in emergencies have immediate access to a counsellor, wherever they are. The Crisis Intervention Service provides emergency mental health support nightly for students living in UCT residences, including on weekends and public holidays.

Disability Services (DS): In addition to the ongoing and in-depth support of student and staff members with disabilities, Disability Services has finalised and approved a new policy on disability. The policy, alongside a guideline document, describes the actions the university needs to take to create an accessible and affirming environment for persons with disability. In 2021, Disability Services continued to provide a range of services, including:

  • disability trainings and sensitisation workshops
  • in-person support in the form of carers, note-takers and disability champions/volunteers
  • coordinating and processing special concession requests related to extra time for assignments or support related to exams
  • matters related to barrier-free access on campus
  • the provision of devices that enable access and participation for persons with disabilities
  • specialised transport for persons with disabilities.

In addition to this, the DS provides individualised support to persons with disabilities. This allows the unit to work with individuals to troubleshoot problems they face in their context and to co-generate solutions.

In 2021, the university built on the COVID-19 support provided in the previous year. On one hand, the university made some effort to respond to economic and social disparities emerging on campus. On the other hand, it’s important to appreciate that these efforts rarely, if at all, transformed students’ material or social lived realities. In simple terms, the transformation actions at UCT didn’t meaningfully impact broader social, economic or political challenges which continue to hinder student participation and success.

What learning can we take from this contention? While it is important to provide support that enables students from marginalised backgrounds to access and participate in UCT, it is also important to transform the nature and functioning of the university so that it is more aligned with justice. In doing so, transformation work would avoid focusing solely on short-term wins and would, over a longer period of time, respond to inequalities in Cape Town and South Africa more broadly.

Warning Signs

Warning signs

In the first three years of capturing data on the benchmarks, entities reported meeting 40–65% of the Student Access, Support and Success benchmark requirements. This indicates that at a faculty and departmental level, efforts to support students vary widely. In addition, some non-academic departments still do not see themselves as having a role in understanding student struggles, even though previous transformation reports strongly argued otherwise.



While the above challenges exist, there are several hopeful sparks of change. For example, the focus on offering psychosocial and education support in CHED and the DSA; the development of digital support resources in the Commerce and Science faculties; and the OIC’s ongoing efforts to respond to student discrimination and harassment all offer useful sparks for positive change.


Transformative awakening

Student movement and protest actions continue to highlight that students are critically conscious of their struggles, have proposals about how best the university can respond, and continue to be critical about the university’s approach. In recent years, repeated protests have emerged in relation to economic inequalities and student debt. These protests should be seen as moments of transformative awakening, rather than as fear-inducing events that the university seeks to stifle.


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