A liberal solution

February 24, 1995

Mamphela Ramphele describes how Cape Town supports its students. Apartheid's architects intended a clear-cut division between black and white in passing laws to segregate education and creating universities for ethnic groups. Their vision was thwarted by the reality of a plural society.

Although some universities, both black and white, accepted or acquiesced in the apartheid project, others resisted. A few have made progress towards desegregation, attracting students of all races and seeking to accommodate divergent cultures in an open community. These are sometimes called the "liberal universities".

Although this description does more justice to the universities of Cape Town, Wi****ersrand, Natal and Rhodes than the perjorative tag "historically white", the time has come to get rid of labels.

The recently established 13-member Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education has the task of articulating a new vision and policy framework. Two of its goals are to increase the access of black students to higher education and to maintain and build on the quality already in the system, while addressing its weaknesses.

For the past 15 years the "liberal" universities have had these goals and achieved significant results despite a predominantly hostile political environment. The University of Cape Town's transformation began in earnest during the early 1980s shortly after the militarist leader, P. W. Botha, assumed office.

It meant a head-on clash with government on numerous issues, and breaking laws such as the Group Areas Act in order to house black students in campus residences. This resistance is a matter of public record and requires no elaboration here.

Apart from the important moral issues at stake, our motivating premise was simple and academically practical: if ability is spread throughout society, it was in the university's interest to identify good students across the board. Any institution drawing its students predominantly from one racial group must be depriving itself of the talents of others. But how to determine where this talent lay given the disparities in primary and secondary education?

Thus the renowned Alternative Admission Research Project was spawned. It set out to find ways of measuring students' potential to succeed at university rather than their prior educational experience. As a result of this project, UCT has since 1988 offered its own admissions' tests in 15 centres countrywide, giving black students from disadvantaged schools a second chance (in addition to the national school-leaving exam) to demonstrate their potential to succeed. The results of these tests - which measure competence in logic and language - correlate closely with success rates at the university. UCT's test is now being adopted by other institutions throughout the country.

Once competent students had access to UCT, we had to ensure that they were able to fulfil their potential. This meant that we had to come to terms with the fact that tertiary education begins where secondary education ends - not where universities decree it should begin. This point differed from student to student. We had to find ways of doing justice both to students who had received a high-school education comparable with the best, and those who had been disadvantaged.

The most successful academic support model we tried has now been institutionalised in an academic development programme across all our faculties. It offers students flexible curricular routes and means that well-prepared students can complete a degree in minimum time, while under-prepared students can plan to extend their degree by one or two years, enabling them to build in courses that compensate for past educational deficits.

This process is backed by intensive counselling, tutoring, and mentoring programmes, small-group work, language and peer support. It offers curricular routes tailored to individuals, taking their circumstances and past experience into account. It seeks to support students, recognising their backgrounds and avoiding the frustration of inevitable failure while maintaining standards. And it is producing results - particularly in the "hard" disciplines such as science and engineering. Teaching staff have risen to the challenge. There is a saying at UCT that professors used to teach their disciplines. Now they teach their students.

The "liberal" universities have had to fund equity programmes, and offer financial aid to disadvantaged students, using discretionary components of their budgets, securing commercial loans and undertaking major fund-raising initiatives. The financial demands are now too great. A national response is required in the form of an institutionalised bursary and loan scheme.

We have adopted a staff equity policy, and have begun to identify ways of transforming the race and gender profile of our staff. But there are few precedents. Our "liberal" universities are probably the international leaders in the field. Much hangs on our success.

Mamphela Ramphele is deputy vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

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