Righting past prejudice heaps up problems for the present

South Africa reaches 'tipping point on unbalanced affirmative action'. David Matthews reports

October 18, 2012

A Nobel-prizewinning architect of apartheid's demise and one of South Africa's longest-serving vice-chancellors have spoken out about what they see as political pressure to discriminate against non-black university applicants.

Frederik Willem de Klerk, the final president of South Africa's apartheid era, which ended in 1994, said that the political atmosphere surrounding admissions was part of broader and unwelcome interference by the government in the country's academy.

There has been fierce debate over a policy by the University of Cape Town that allows black and "coloured" (mixed-race) applicants entry to the institution's most popular courses with significantly lower grades than those required of white, Indian- or Chinese-ethnic hopefuls.

Max Price, Cape Town's vice-chancellor, has argued that the system is needed because the legacy of apartheid means that black students still on the whole go to poor-quality schools. Critics have countered that the policy is simply another form of racial discrimination, leads to weaker students being accepted and gives an unwarranted advantage to black students from wealthy families.

"We're reaching a tipping point on the issue of unbalanced affirmative action," Mr de Klerk said, adding that the policy could "estrange" young non-black South Africans who could aid the country's economy.

"I'm fully in favour in all walks of life of forms of affirmative action, of ways and means of rectifying the wrongs of the past. But it should not be done on the basis of clearly defined quotas and the like," he said.

Mr de Klerk welcomed the announcement earlier this year that Cape Town would review its admissions policy with a view to moving away from looking simply at race, taking into account other family circumstances such as wealth.

He spoke to Times Higher Education earlier this month after a convocation ceremony in London for graduates of the Greenwich School of Theology.

The school runs degree programmes accredited by North-West University, the current incarnation of which was formed by a merger with the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (Mr de Klerk's alma mater) in 2004. Potchefstroom was dominated by white, mainly Afrikaans-speaking students, whereas the original North-West (previously known as the University of Bophuthatswana) taught mainly black students from rural areas.

Theuns Eloff, North-West's vice-chancellor since 2002, was speaking alongside Mr de Klerk. He agreed that the "concept of previous disadvantage is much too strongly linked to race. There are black students who were born around 1994 who have never been previously disadvantaged, yet they make it (into university) because of the colour of their skin."

There is no legal way for the government to impose quotas or entry rates based on race, he added, but there was substantial political pressure that was difficult to resist.

"I am now the longest-serving vice-chancellor in the country and can now say 'no'. But others don't - especially if they're black, want to belong to (the ruling African National Congress party) and ... be part of the party structures. Then it's quite difficult," he claimed.

Mergers and administrations

The South African academy faces other issues besides race. During the mid-2000s, a series of mergers cut the number of universities in the country from 36 to 23, partly to integrate institutions that were racially divided under apartheid.

This was another case in which institutional autonomy was "not sufficiently recognised", said Mr de Klerk. "In the case of North-West... (the merger) worked. But in other cases it destroyed some excellence that (had been) built up," such as in the technical universities, South Africa's equivalent of polytechnics.

The country is also plagued by an extremely high dropout rate, estimated at 45 per cent by the International Education Association of South Africa, a body that helps the country's institutions build international links.

Professor Eloff said the main culprit was the country's weak school system, which fails to prepare students for higher education.

Yet one of the challenges facing South Africa's universities is convincing academics "that the problem is theirs", he added. Scholars rightly believe that they cannot be blamed for the failings of the school system, but as it will not change in their lifetimes, they have to do what they can now to improve attainment.

He also complained that "by and large" South Africa's universities were not "managed properly".

"They have this sort of now foreign idea that academics (can succeed) as administrators, but we need professional management," Professor Eloff said.

"There are too many senior managers in higher education who are running around making speeches and not solving the day-to-day problems."

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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