Letter sparks quota debate

2014-02-17 00:00

A 16-YEAR-OLD KwaZulu-Natal pupil has posed a simple question to President Jacob Zuma: should he bother working for straight As in his matric year, if race quotas will likely bar him from his chosen career?

In an open letter he sent to the president last week, Keiyuren Govender of Malvern said, “Sadly, many of my friends and family members were classified as Indians and despite mostly straight As, were refused acceptance in medical school and other popular career choices because of the so-called quota system.”

The Witness spoke to the vice chancellors of three of SA’s top universities, including UCT, where Keiyuren hopes to study actuarial science — his first choice — or medicine.

They revealed that all three universities were set to make historic changes to their admissions policies, moving away from race as the main factor — but each had a dramatically different response to Keiyuren’s letter.

Jonathan Jansen, vice chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) said Keiyuren was right to find race quotas and race classifications offensive and counter-productive.

Adam Habib, head of Wits, said Keiyuren was wrong — saying Indians had experienced “an exponential increase in education opportunities”, and that Indian students at Wits medical school had recently grown from 22% to 27% “despite representing four percent of the population”.

Dr Max Price, vice chancellor of UCT, said “Indians and whites are largely in the same boat” in having to work harder to access certain courses in which black students, requiring “significantly lower grades”, gain seats.

But he said Keiyuren was wrong to believe race would exclude him from actuarial science, saying he needed simply get an A aggregate with an A in Maths to make it into the course.

Price said Keiyuren’s complaint also summed up two popular misconceptions — “that kids with the best marks always make the best actuaries and doctors” and that 65% in a township school was a lesser achievement than 95% in a rich school.

Price said that — above a certain threshold — pupils who came top of their class in a township school had precisely the same talent as students who came top of private school classes.

All three noted that many white and Indian parents blamed race prejudice when their straight-A children failed to be enrolled, when, in fact, other students had simply achieved higher scores.

Keiyuren’s heartfelt letter — in which he objects to apartheid-era categories and asks, “Am I a South African?” — coincides with a countrywide rethink of diversity strategies due to the growing financial, academic and cultural gap between rich and poor black families.

UFS has no race quotas, Wits has a race quota for its medical school and UCT has broad race quotas across most high-demand courses, including architecture, the humanities and health sciences.

All three are now exploring ways to increase considerations of class in their policies.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal has led the class trend, with its medical school already setting aside 20% of its admissions for the poorest schools. This is, partly, in an effort to produce doctors likely to want to practice in rural areas. However, it allocates the rest of its medical places in this way: 69% to black Africans, 19% to Indians, nine percent to coloureds and two percent to whites.

The son of a government official, Keiyuren said, “I really just want to contribute to my community and my country, but first I need a fair chance — and I need to know I am recognised as a South African.

“I just cannot believe that so many people who score over 90% can’t even study for the careers they’ve worked towards based on categories.”

Zuma’s office did not respond either to Keiyuren or The Witness on the letter.

Karishma Govender (17) — who scored 92,5%, or 48 points, for matric last year — claimed she had been refused access to UKZN’s medical school “because I didn’t qualify for the quota”.

“It was hectic to realise it was because of my colour. I was so disappointed,” she says.

Habib said he had established a task team to investigate a change in the quota from race to “class-plus”.

“We need to re-open the conversation on diversity in all sectors. I think universities are going to lead on this,” he said.

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