How elite should elite be?

2010-08-27 00:00

THE University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has no plans to pursue stricter admission criteria from its applicants for the 2011 intake.

While other universities have made public their plans to go this route, UKZN said it is confident that because of rigorous assessment in its entrance requirements, the stringent measures already in place will ensure that high academic achievers are admitted across its eight faculties.

In recent weeks, politicians and unionists have openly criticised the decision by many South African universities to tighten their admission requirements for new entrants next year.

For some of the universities, the change is as much as five points.

To gain university entrance, matriculants are scored or earn points based on the marks they get for each subject.

The Department of Higher Education and Training sets national minimum criteria for entry to a degree programme in South Africa, which universities adhere to. But universities also add their own institution-specific requirements to how these admission points are calculated, the number of points needed, as well as the subject-specific requirements needed for certain courses.

Currently, the required admission points score (AP score) at the University of the Free State stands at 28. But by 2011, university hopefuls will need an extra two points in order to be admitted to the university. By 2012, an additional two points will push the entry points to 32.

Rhodes University is planning to hike its points-based system from 35 to 40.

The University of the Western Cape, the University of the Witwatersrand, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and the University of Stellenbosch are all among the universities that have admitted to stricter admission processes for their 2011 class.

As well as agreeing that a drop in the pass rate could be attributed to universities setting their admission criteria too low, many of these institutions have also admitted that they are using the admission points score to limit the number of students so that staff are not overburdened.

Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande and African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe have been among those criticising the move, saying that this is another example of how universities try to segregate students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and limit their access to tertiary education.

Since coming into office, Nzimande has been very vocal about his plans to increase access to higher education by probing the admission policies used by universities.

This and the issue of lack of transformation in universities were among the major points of discussion at a Higher Education Transformation summit held in Cape Town in April.

Speaking at a JB Marks Memorial Lecture at Wits University a few weeks ago, Mantashe said education is a priority of the ANC, adding that it views the proposed increases in university entry points as a form of exclusion.

According to Mantashe, the points systems are the surest way of excluding poor students since only students who are products of former Model C schools would meet the new criteria.

This sentiment was shared by the South African Students Congress (Sasco), which said it is saddened at the prospect of hiked entrance requirements, calling it “an onslaught waged by neoliberal universities aimed at excluding the working class from universities”.

Responding to a Witness query, Merridy Wilson-Strydom, researcher director for Institutional Research and Academic Planning at UFS, said the decision to increase the admission points is a necessary and central element of the university’s commitment to the enhancing of academic standards and the quality of education.

According to Wilson-Strydom, the success rates of students at the UFS and most other South African universities are very low. As a result, universities in the country are grappling with what has been called the “revolving door syndrome”, where poorly prepared students are admitted, incur debt and then leave university without having earned a qualification.

“Although student success is a complex issue, the fact that entering students are increasingly underprepared for university is certainly a contributor,” Wilson-Strydom told The Witness.

She added that the extent of this under-preparedness has been highlighted nationally by the results of the National Benchmark Tests. These tests are used by universities for their first-year students in order to complement their Grade 12 results.

Rhodes University spokesperson Lebogang Hashatse said the university’s key focus is ensuring access to students coming from diverse communities and backgrounds.

However, the reality is that the campus size, as well as infrastructure, limits the number of students who can be admitted.

As a result, the student selection systems are used to determine the number of students who can be admitted for the various degree programmes.

“The selection system is primarily premised on identifying potential to succeed, and less on which schools students came from and what financial backing they have. Once admitted, the university undertakes a number of teaching and learning measures to ensure students realise their potential to succeed,” said Hashatse.

Asked whether universities around the world are not supposed to discriminate by sifting for the best crop of students, acting deputy director-general for universities in the Department of Higher Education and Training Kirti Menon said universities are not supposed to discriminate unfairly against any students or applicant, including those from poor backgrounds.

She said the context in which South African pupils study needs to be taken into account.

“Pupils who are performing and passing under very trying conditions with limited resources may, if given the opportunity, outperform some of the best pupils where resources and facilities are in ample supply,” she said.

On the question of quotas for black students, Menon said it is inevitable that certain interventions will be necessary if the South African government wishes to normalise a society that is emerging from a history characterised by deeply rooted inequalities based on class, race, gender and disability.

She added that the quality of each university’s qualifications is assured through the Higher Education Quality Committee of the Council on Higher Education (CHE). She said the CHE accredits every single university qualification on offer. Hence, employers cannot view any university as a second-rate institution.

The Department of Higher Education and Training also cited the CHE as safeguarding the quality of degrees awarded by universities, such as UKZN, that choose not to make their admission policiesstricter.


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