UCT Admissions: The DASO alternative

by The Editor

DOCUMENT: The University of Cape Town has for sometime now been the centre of much attention as a result of its race-based admissions policy. In a response to that debate, the UCT council recently established a Commission into UCT Students Admissions on the Admissions Policy and called for public submissions. What follows below is the submission from the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation at UCT, in which the case is made, rather than race-based selection, a basket of socio-economic indicators be used – an alternative approach to redress, based on equality of opportunity.

Democratic Alliance Student Organisation
Level Five- Steve Biko Student’s Union
North Lane
University of Cape Town
Upper Campus

The Commission into UCT Students Admissions
Room 106
Bremner Building
Lovers Walk,
Cape Town 7700
Attention: Judge Craig Howie

Dear Sir,

Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) Submission to the Commission into UCT Students Admission on the UCT Admissions Policy

Please find herein our submission to the Commission into UCT Students Admissions on the Admissions Policy in response to the advertisement for submissions.

Should the opportunity present itself, we are willing and interested in having a member of our organization present an oral submission to the committee.

The Democratic Alliance Student Organisation is an official structure of South Africa’s official national opposition party and the governing party of the Western Cape Province, the Democratic Alliance. It operates exclusively on university campuses were it is run by students committed to the principles of constitutional liberalism.


Amanda Gwen Ngwenya

p.p. Democratic Alliance Students’ Organisation
Contact: angwenya1@gmail.com or 074 1315420

DASO Submission to the Commission into UCT Students Admission on the UCT Admissions Policy


1.1 Role of the university

The modern university faces the challenges brought on by a growing convergence in the goals of business, government and education. In universities this transformation has led to, among others, a shared responsibility in redressing skewed educational opportunities caused by a historically prejudicial education system, an increased focus on applied science, a concern about the employability of graduates and the incentivizing study in areas of scarce skills. Now more than ever there is a pronounced tension between knowledge pursued for some or other end and knowledge pursued for its own sake.

With knowledge being an important driver of economic growth in the 21st century it is critical that universities operate in specific and strategic ways in order to contribute to a country’s intellectual capital. Simultaneously the university must be a space where scepticism and curiosity thrive, without the constraint of predetermined outcomes, to allow pockets of enquiry where altogether new possibilities can be explored. It has often been the unfettered pursuit of knowledge that has led to innovations that the world today cannot live without. The quest for knowledge, be it for a specified end or as an end unto itself can only be achieved by admitting students capable of reaching a high level of academic competence.

It follows therefore that any admissions policy must enable a university to fulfil its purpose. UCT sees itself as a university with a ‘responsibility to produce the next generation of academics for South Africa and the rest of the continent.’ In addition there is a desire for UCT to be ‘the destination of choice for students, young postdoctoral research fellows and senior academics in South Africa, Africa and internationally’ and for UCT to ‘augment its activities to better answer the pressing social, economic and developmental problems facing South Africa and the rest of Africa.’[1] These goals can only be achieved by attracting the brightest minds.

1.2 Principles that should guide an admissions policy

Attracting the brightest minds, in the South African context, is complicated by the fact that applicants come from very different educational and socio-economic backgrounds. It is common cause that millions of young South Africans are unable to demonstrate their academic ability sufficiently due to a historical legacy of systemic inequality and deprivation.

In the interests of fairness and in order to achieve the best possible graduate outcomes, the goal then of an admissions policy should therefore be to admit people who have either demonstrated their academic ability or have the potential to achieve excellent academic outcomes despite an inadequate primary and secondary education.

In order to assess for and develop potential, a university should therefore both select for potential and seek to implement interventions that assist students who have been accepted to bridge the gap between potential and demonstrable ability.

These interventions however cannot always compensate for twelve years of schooling and it is a regrettable reality that even with additional assistance there are many learners for whom a university education is beyond reach because they cannot reasonably be expected to catch up.

UCT’s current admissions policy does not apply these principles. First, its objective, which is a particular demographic outcome [2], is both unfair and impractical. It is so because it engineers an artificial equality that does not currently exist in the South African schooling system at the detriment of those it attempts to assist and those bright minds it does not admit. Second, the mechanism it uses to achieve redress, race-as-proxy-for-disadvantage, is also unfair and impractical because it fails to fairly assess individual potential. UCT’s admissions policy seeks to achieve an equality of outcomes and not an equality of opportunity in the existing South African context.

UCT’s Admissions Policy does state that its equity targets are aspirational and not set quotas. However the distinction is meaningless if the targets are treated like quotas by admitting advantaged students on racial grounds, or by accepting on racial basis students without the potential to succeed at the level that is required by UCT. While UCT should seek to play its part in achieving redress, as this submission argues, it is not and cannot be UCT’s responsibility single-handedly to compensate for the failure of the primary and secondary schools systems to produce a fair distribution of university candidates.

The consequences of a racial outcome approach are two-fold: first, people who are not able to succeed at university level are selected and then fail, thus compromising the purpose of the university; second, it results in candidates who are able to succeed being excluded, which is unfair to them. There are therefore three sets of victims of an equality of outcomes approach: (1) the candidate who fails; (2) the candidate who might have succeeded but who is not selected; (3) South Africa, which needs to maximise knowledge and skills in order to succeed.

DASO thus implores the university to find measures for admitting students that are based on an equality-of-opportunity approach. This requires a reconceptualization of the Admissions Policy as a tool for recognizing both academic ability and potential irrespective of race. This approach would achieve three things simultaneously: fairness, better academic outcomes and diversity (because academic ability and potential is widely distributed across the school going population of the Western Cape and South Africa.)

2. UCT’s defence of a race-based admissions policy

2.1 On diversity and representivity

The UCT Admissions Policy cites as one of its aims the achievement of a diverse student body. It explains this diversity as the reflection of South Africa’s demographic diversity through the student body.

We wish to argue that diversity and representivity are not the same. Diversity is a mix of people of different character traits, personalities, cultural backgrounds, experiences, nationalities etc. It is different from representivity which assumes that individuals are simply facsimiles of a larger group and are important only in so far as they “represent” that larger group.

Diversity is achievable while maintaining the standards of the university by taking educational obstacles into account and admitting the most talented students locally and internationally. Institutions can also attract diversity by adopting and communicating an institutional culture that is welcoming to more individuals from a variety of backgrounds.

Representivity cannot be achieved without compromising standards. While diversity welcomes excellence no matter its source, representivity requires the source to have a particular group characteristic. When this is not possible to source organically in sufficient numbers, mechanistic policies must intervene to achieve the desired outcome.

It warrants re-iteration that the university can take into account the legacy of the schooling system and economic disadvantage but should still admit students capable of academic excellence. It is not the role of the university to manufacture artificial equality by fixing outcomes.

2.2 Defining disadvantage

The University of Cape Town, through its Vice-Chancellor Dr. Max Price, argues that as it stands race serves as the best proxy for disadvantage in the absence of a credible test for disadvantage.

Inarguably the best measure for disadvantage is disadvantage. Dr. Price argues that the obstacle in testing for disadvantage is not the difficulty in measuring school outcomes and socio-economic standing, but rather the difficulty in measuring certain types of disadvantage. In particular two kinds of disadvantage are identified: 1) a lack of cultural capital and 2) racial stereotypes.

2.2.1 Cultural capital

The cultural capital argument posits that the education system reflects and replicates Western culture and thus disadvantages Black (read throughout the submission as including Black, Coloured and Indian) students to whom this culture is alien.

The following assumptions about cultural capital have implicitly been made:

  • Cultural capital is passed on by the family network only

We must be careful of over-emphasizing a bounded view of networks. Individuals increasingly are part of many networks simultaneously. In addition students from middle to high socioeconomic backgrounds have access to TV and the internet which are two powerful mediums in the conferral of cultural capital as well as access to culturally diverse friendship circles.

  • Cultural practices exist in exclusion or dominance of one another.

People of intellectual capacity are capable of integrating values and ideas of understanding and knowing the world. A female Christian student from a conservative patriarchal family background may understand that in a school or university setting an argument or point she wishes to make will find more credibility if made within the framework of secular rationalism as opposed to founding its truth in the divine will of a mystical entity. Similarly irony and sarcasm may be appreciated as signs of wit and ingenious humour in some circles and shunned in others precisely for demonstrating wit and intellectual superiority. It is possible that while an individual may not demonstrate irony and sarcasm with a family that views it as evidence of conceit, the same individual with great verve and ease employs their charm among friends.

The central argument here is that Black children of middle to high socioeconomic status have access to social networks beyond their family environment through their school peers and extra-curricular activities as well as access to popular culture through television and the internet. Cultural capital can be acquired. Individual agency and different experiences make it difficult to adopt a deterministic view of how cultural capital is acquired, never mind the impossibility of measuring it.

2.2.2 The individual

Worse than the university determining one’s academic competency according to race is the idea that the university should be in the position to judge by virtue of one’s race the most intimate of characteristics of individuals.

It is inconceivable that we can assume in accordance with race what behaviours, ideas, achievements, material objects and world outlook one feels an intimate connection to. It is a racist and vicious attack on the free agency and distinctness of the individual to assume that because one is black, Western culture and the intellectual history and ideas related with it are foreign. The university should not place itself in a position where it decides for individuals that they are disadvantaged whether they like it or not. It is a derogation of the principles of non-racialism to label someone as disadvantaged merely on the basis of their race and irrespective of their own idea of themselves.

It is not possible to capture all the ways in which an individual may be disadvantaged. The critical consideration is who can reasonably be expected to compete? It is a sobering question and illuminates a path through the complexities of weighing unquantifiable features of disadvantage.

It asks us to set a rational bar of expectation. Those who have been afforded a good primary and secondary education and are of middle to high socioeconomic status should be expected to adequately demonstrate their academic ability regardless of their race.

2.2.3 On stereotypes

Dr. Price has also posited that ‘where racial or gender stereotypes are perceived to be operative, their effect is to trigger underperformance.’²

It is accurate to say that stereotypes and attitudes can affect learner performance but the way to fix it is not by creating the space for negative stereotypes to take root. An admissions policy that legitimizes disadvantage based solely on race reinforces societal stereotypes of Black students’ inferior academic competence.

‘Cultural capital’ and ‘racial stereotypes’ arguments for justifying a race-based policy at their core assume that Black South Africans are disadvantaged simply by virtue of being Black. On the basis of the above arguments this cannot readily be accepted.

Students who have received a quality education, are of a middle class background, whose parents have post-secondary schooling and are home language if not ‘Mother Tongue’ English speakers, irrespective of their race, should be expected to be in a position to demonstrate their academic ability to their fullest potential. This is appropriate if low self-esteem, victimhood and dependency are to be replaced with confidence and agency.

3. How to achieve an admissions policy that takes both demonstrated ability and potential into consideration

Dr. Price identifies two possible alternatives to a race-based admissions policy [3]: 1) a test that measures academic potential and 2) a model of placing applicants into groups with those of comparable disadvantage. In this latter model top performers from each group would be selected to ensure that students compete with those of similar advantage. Both these policy options are principally sound however implementation will be slow due to their complexity, a point which is conceded by Dr. Price. DASO supports further investigation into these options especially research in developing an assessment that tests for potential as the best long term solution.

Even in the absence of an assessment that accurately tests for potential there is still no reason to remain with a race-based admissions policy.

3.1 Basket of socio-economic indicators

Many reputable institutions of higher learning across the world use contextual information as part of a holistic analysis of eligibility.

3.1.1 Several policy options exist within the basket approach

One option of collating indicators is to implement a weighted system which allocates points to different indicators which are then added to an academic score giving each applicant an overall application score.

Many institutions however adopt a qualitative approach that does not attach scores to different indicators and allows a less mechanistic approach to adjudicating an applicant’s potential;

  • The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) takes into account academic and personal circumstances. Each application is read twice by trained readers who then give each application an overall score.
  • The University of Michigan has a similar approach to UCLA but each of the applications is seen three times by reviewers. An initial opinion is formulated by a reviewer from the Admissions Office. The opinion of the first reviewer is not shared with the second reviewer, called a territory counsellor, with expertise on a particular geographic area’s schools and their curriculum standards and facilities etc. The application is viewed lastly by a more senior official in the Admissions Office who takes into account the overall application and the opinions of the reviewers or refers it to an Admissions Review Committee.
  • The University of London places applicants who do not automatically meet entrance requirements for consideration before a Special Admissions Panel which assesses the eligibility of the application.

Both a mechanical approach and one that allows for human subjectivity have their advantages and disadvantages. The approach taken must be at the discretion of the university taking into consideration its capacity constraints.

4. Conclusion

Society as a whole benefits when universities are centres of excellence. This can only be achieved by non-racial policies that extend opportunity to as many students as are capable of achieving academic excellence. There are a number of possibilities and considering a basket of socio-economic indicators is but one of them.

Recognizing a select set of indicators for disadvantage ensures that those who experience significant obstacles to learning are rewarded for their perseverance and that their potential for academic excellence, given the appropriate support, is acknowledged.

Race-based admissions policies institutionalize victimhood, along with many other social factors, and the longer we take to remove them the more lasting their effects will be.

Excluding race from the criteria ensures that those whom society should reasonably expect to compete do so and learn to navigate themselves in the world on the basis of their skills, talents and hard work.


1. The Strategic Plan for the University of Cape Town 2010-2014
2. The university’s strategic plan document highlights that it ‘aspire[s] to have a first year intake which would be an average of national and Western Cape demographic profiles of university-eligible school leavers.’
3. Dr Max Price, Mail and Guardian, In defence of race-based policy (2012)