My alma mater, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has been in a (seemingly endless, but necessary) debate regarding race-based admissions. Currently it gives preference to black students. That the debate has gone on so long shows just how important the symbolism of race is in South African politics.
The alternative to race-based admission is to use things such as how highly educated a student’s parents are, the quality of the school they attended, and income. Ultimately I do not think this will not markedly affect the pool of people eligible for admission and who get given preference. Black students are the most likely to meet these criteria.
But it changes the symbolism of the process completely. It no longer assumes every black kid is previously disadvantaged (there is a new generation of young blacks whose parents are middle-class and this middle class is growing rapidly) and that every white kid is previously advantaged. Coloureds, who have complained that they are underrepresented in “transformation” may now stand an equal chance. It levels the playing field and I think it has to be done. It is a symbolic step in the direction of a South Africa in which all men (and women) are equal without sacrificing the need to redress the social injustices of the past.
I have stated in previous blog posts my natural aversion to affirmative action. I have, however, no aversion to university admissions policies that take into account more than just the grades of an applicant. Many students with a lot of potential have grades lists that look terrible merely because they had a substandard education for instance. Brazil found with its affirmative action candidates (here the policy also appears to be race-based), called cotistas, that they did not fare much worse than the other students, and in fact caught up quite quickly. This was for two reasons: they worked harder and they had a greater ability than show by their entrance grades because they were not coached for the entrance exams. We want such students in our universities.
Apparently affirmative action was also quite successful in American universities and this has been stated as a reason for continuing race-based admission. That is a fair point, but the redress of social disadvantage is inherently ideological and it seems to me that using clearer indicators of disadvantage fits better ideologically and is likely to give the same (or even a better) result. I do not know if there is research on this. If there is not, then I think we should try it.
I have no idea if South African affirmative action candidates fare well at university. (If you know, please leave a comment). I do know that it is unfair to keep them out. But I think it is counterproductive to force the demographics of the university to reflect the demographics of the country one for one. Find the students with ability, take into account their background (not their race), and give them the opportunity they deserve. The demographic change will come.