What is UCT’s new admissions policy?

| Katy Scott and GroundUp staff
The University of Cape Town is changing its admissions policy.

The University of Cape Town is changing its admissions policy to take into account disadvantage as well as race. The new policy is complex. We have tried here to explain it accurately and simply.

UCT’s current admission policy

UCT selects students by ranking them on their faculty points score, which is either your National Senior Certificate score or, in two faculties, a combination of this score and your National Benchmark Test score. Students are first selected in an open category, irrespective of race. Then black South Africans are considered in a redress category.

How is race determined?

The university asks you to indicate if one of your parents was African, Coloured, Indian or Chinese. Your parent’s classification determines the redress category. Faculties treat Indian and Chinese descended applicants differently from African and Coloured. You do not have to identify your parent’s race when you apply, but then you are not considered in the redress category.

According to UCT, “Indian and Chinese students generally do not have any advantage in terms of more flexible admissions scores.”

Reasons given for new policy

Vice-chancellor Dr Max Price has written that the policy has achieved remarkable racial diversity at the university, with the majority of students now being black. However, Price says that it can no longer be assumed that all black students are economically disadvantaged. A large number of black middle-class students are now part of the student body. But many economically disadvantaged black students are unable to get in.

A new policy has been approved in principle by the university senate and council to address this. The implementation details are being worked out over the next two months. The senate and council will vote in November and December respectively, on the implementation of the new policy. It is expected to be effective for the 2016 intake.

The new policy has been vigorously contested.

The new admissions policy

The new application form will request information about your home background and your school in order to calculate your disadvantage index. Criteria will include the quality of the high school you attended, the education of your parents and grandparents, whether your family is dependent on social grants, and your home language. A disadvantage weight will be computed from answers to these questions. The weighting will consist of two categories: home and school disadvantage. Students who are more disadvantaged may have a better chance of getting into UCT than they currently do.

For the home disadvantage weighting, three points are awarded if your parents and grandparents lack a university education, six points for an indigenous African home language, and one point for reliance on a social grant or pension.

The school disadvantage score is based in part on the average National Senior Certificate score for all students at your school over a five-year period. A maximum of 10 points will be given for poor-performing schools and a minimum of 0 points for high-achieving schools. UCT has explained to us that there are nuances to this though and that several different sources supply data in the ranking of schools. The higher of the home or school score will be the final disadvantage score.

Price has explained that, depending on the programme of study, a proportion of students (15% is an example given) will be selected solely on their faculty points scores, regardless of race or disadvantage. This is to provide space for top-achieving students.

A further proportion of applicants (60% is an example given) will be admitted taking the disadvantage weighting into account. In other words, if two people have the same faculty point scores, the applicant with greater disadvantage is more likely to be accepted.

The remaining applicants will be selected using the current race system. In this category, only black South Africans will be eligible.

The debate

Price has justified the policy by writing that it helps the university take into account the experience of people, rather than assuming everyone of the same race has had a similar experience. However, the new policy is contested by the UCT SRC. Nommangaliso Gondwe, the SRC president, has reportedly argued that the student view is that race should still be the most important factor to consider, and that the current policy should not be changed.

Agreeing with the SRC, Lucky Thekisho, the chairperson of the Higher Education Transformation Network, asked UCT’s senior Management, “What do you mean when you state your policy is ‘taking account of the changing realities of race and class in South Africa since 1994?’ Our reading of the facts is that race as a rule, is a class determinant.”

He also wrote, “To deny the centrality of race, the lingering reality of historical white privilege, the intangible benefits that advantage whites, represents the worst form of racism.”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Crain Soudien, responded by explaining that successful applicants to whom the policy will give a competitive advantage, will be applicants whose parents were classified as black under apartheid. “It will also give a competitive advantage to applicants whose home or school background has been disadvantaged.”

“A lot of the hype has been a simple misunderstanding,” Deputy Registrar Academic, Dr Karen van Heerden, told GroundUp. “This policy does not kick race out of the window, and that is precisely why it is called a hybrid model because it retains race. We have not lost race but we have acknowledged that we have moved on since 1994.”

It is not surprising, wrote Price in Business Day, that most applicants identified as disadvantaged through these criteria are Coloured or African. “About half the black students admitted would no longer need to be placed into an exclusively black pool of applicants in order to win a place at UCT,” he wrote.

Thekisho contests this. He wrote, “only a tiny strata of the black population have made significant economic gains.”

And on the other side of the debate, UCT philosopher David Benatar has argued against using race at all in the admission policy. “No proxy for disadvantage is going to be perfect. … However, the use of ‘race’ is a particularly toxic proxy,” he wrote in 2012.


Another point of debate is Afrikaans. Afrikaans as a home language does not receive disadvantage points. SRC representative Ramabina Mahapa wrote in the Cape Argus that Coloured students will be “severely punished by the proposed policy because it does not include Afrikaans”.

In a letter to Varsity newspaper Price argued that the inclusion of Afrikaans as a disadvantage indicator would in turn benefit privileged white Afrikaners. He assures Coloured applicants that this will not harm their chances of being accepted into UCT. “We find many Coloured students perform well enough to compete on the basis of academic merit. In addition, Coloured applicants are eligible for a significant weighting of as many as 10 points if they come from historically disadvantaged schools,” he wrote.

“But what about those Coloured students who went to good schools yet are socio-economically and psychologically disadvantaged?” asks Mahapa in his Cape Argus article. “UCT is saying, sorry, you are ‘privileged’.”

UCT has put together a document with a range of views on its admissions policy. You can download it here: http://www.uct.ac.za/downloads/uct.ac.za/news/admissions/UCT_admissions_…

GroundUp has gone to great effort to explain the new policy accurately. The details of the policy might change before it is introduced.

Comment from UCT

The new admissions policy has three essential elements, while the current policy has two elements.

The two current elements are: We want to select the best possible applicants based on their academic merit; and we want to achieve redress by selecting people based on how their parents’ race would have been classified under apartheid.

The new policy is based on the current policy, but with the addition of a weighting for economic disadvantage, either in the home or in school. UCT is doing this to try to attract students with high potential to succeed in a university environment, and whose academic scores demonstrate this potential in spite of the disadvantages of their background.

To determine this disadvantage, UCT asks applicants about the educational level of their parents and grandparents; whether they grew up speaking an indigenous African home language; whether their family received a social grant or pension; and what high school the applicants attended.

The UCT Senate sets a minimum academic achievement level for each degree. We will not admit any applicant below that threshold because of the likelihood that such an applicant would not succeed in earning a degree at UCT. We then select the best qualified applicants above that threshold in such a way as to provide redress for disadvantage. In other words, the applicant’s merit score may have points added for each disadvantage that is registered.

UCT then also sets targets for the racial make-up of the South African students who will be admitted to help achieve redress and transformation.

To summarise, in order to select the best potential students, UCT takes into account either the applicant’s disadvantage (either home disadvantage or school disadvantage); OR the racial classification of the applicant’s parents under apartheid.

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TOPICS:  Education

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