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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 March, 2004, 16:13 GMT
SA universities: The racial balance
Mohammed Allie
BBC Africa Live, Cape Town

University of Cape Town
University of Cape Town is undergoing a racial transformation

Walking into the students' cafeteria at the University of Cape Town (UCT) at lunchtime was something of an eye-opener.

As usual the place was crowded with students enjoying a well-earned break.

The only difference was that most students were black; a stark contrast to the situation 10 years ago, when most of the students in the cafeteria were white.

Like other former white-only universities in South Africa, UCT has embarked on a process of transformation which among other things has seen them admitting more black students in an effort to reflect the demographics of the country.

"We have had a comprehensive plan to attract more black students which has involved an alternative admissions programme because many students come from severely disadvantaged backgrounds," says Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Martin West.

"Their formal results may not be as good as pupils from advantaged backgrounds but they remain talented and have the potential to succeed at university," says Professor West.

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The changing face of UCT is phenomenal. For the first time in its 175-year history, more than half of its new admissions this year are black students.

A majority of those admitted through the alternative admissions programme come from township schools where there is still a lack of facilities and resources.

Many of those students are beneficiaries of the academic development programme which provides additional tuition and mentoring as well as allowing the students to take an extra year to complete their degrees.

Students from University of Cape Town
There has been an increase in the number of blacks studying medicine

Third year engineering student, Bongikosi Mkweba, says the programme benefited him a lot.

"In my stream, instead of doing my degree over a four-year period, I'm taking one extra year. At least it's giving people like me a chance to become engineers, scientists and accountants. For me the end justifies the means," he says.

In addition to admitting more black students, UCT has also seen a significant increase in those doing courses in science, engineering, commerce and medicine - previously most black students were doing courses in the social sciences.

Historical disadvantages

The complexities of South African society leave many black students in a dilemma over whether merit should be the sole criterion for admission as opposed to making allowances for historical disadvantages to have more black students admitted to university.

Mvusa Inyoni, a third year Psychology student, says while merit should be the major factor in gaining admission, consideration should also be given to providing black students with opportunities.

"Results should matter because after all you're coming here to study. If you don't have good results at school then you won't cope. But I also think they also need to integrate demographic issues as well while providing the appropriate support."

This view is supported by Mbali Vilakazi, a film and media studies student.

"What's more important is not so much about me getting in because that's not good enough. The main issue is can I get in and come out as a successful student - that's the key issue," she says.

Injustices of apartheid

In its pursuit of admitting more black students, some white students who would have gained automatic entry because of their results have been turned away from courses like medicine, engineering and accounting.

Students at the University of Cape Town
Most black students come from severely disadvantaged backgrounds
For Ambragam Barley, a white business science student, this is not easy to accept.

"I feel this is apartheid in reverse. We are being disadvantaged but I guess we have to make allowances for the injustices of apartheid," she says.

For some white students the issue of admitting black students who have slightly lower grades but who have the potential to succeed must be hard to swallow.

However, UCT, like many other former white universities have recognised they have a role to play in redressing the skills imbalance caused by apartheid.

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