Fair Admission

Phillip Dhlamini wants to study Law. He is, though, an unconventional applicant; a retired military veteran and on-time freedom fighter denied the opportunity of sitting conventional school leaving examinations more than forty years ago. He’s had to go to court to force the university to consider his application for a place on its undergraduate programme. Mr Dhlamini is, at the least, a credible candidate. Why do universities often make it so difficult for those who have lived unconventionally to become their students?

It’s often assumed that a place at a university is a reward for previous educational success. This belief is understandable. Aspirant students work hard to get high grades in school leaving examinations and their families often invest heavily in giving them the best chances. Used correctly, though, an applicant’s educational record is not a key that opens the door to higher education. It is rather evidence of an applicant’s potential to graduate with a university qualification some years into the future.

This is why universities across the world often take into account factors other than school leaving examinations. Selective American universities have complex rating systems that may include sporting acumen and a family history of enrolment. Standardized tests – the SATs – are extensively used but are weak indicators of subsequent student success. British universities have “contextual admissions”. This is a roundabout way of acknowledging that, at the cohort level, a student’s grades for A Levels are strongly correlated with their household income. Selective South African universities take an applicant’s self-declared racial identity into account, because the lasting effects of racial segregation still shape the life chances of potential university students.

This approach to admissions was defined as a set of principles ten years ago in the Schwartz Report. While this was written for the UK’s Higher Education system, its conceptual foundation has a far broader applicability. The five guidelines set out for a fair admissions system are transparency, selection based both on applicants’ achievements and their potential, the use of reliable and valid assessment methods, minimal barriers, and appropriate institutional structures and processes.

Given this it is mysterious why universities – across a wide range of jurisdictions – have such difficulty with concepts such as the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) and Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL). Formal school leaving examinations are important. But they are relevant mainly for young adults going straight into university from particular types of schools. And their usefulness for predicting future success falls away beyond the top grades of attainment. One of the consequences of ever-rising participation rates is that “traditional” applicants are steadily declining as a proportion of overall admissions to Higher Education. In Britain, for example, only about half of all university students gain their places by taking A Levels.

Phillip Dhlamini is a classic example of an applicant who should be considered on the basis of prior learning that provides strong indications of his potential to succeed.

Because of illness and a speech disability he only started school at the age of 9, and was then denied the opportunity of continuing beyond basic indication. Despite this, he represented trade unions in industrial and labour courts and gained a university certificate in industrial relations. Following the integration of the underground movements into the South African Defence Force, he attained the rank of colonel and was responsible for military labour relations for the Department of Defence.

He now wants to study for a law degree. There is every indication that his prior learning and experience is, at the least, equivalent to the knowledge and competence of a seventeen-year-old finishing school and taking formal examinations. And yet he has had to take his university of choice to court to even have his application considered.

While this case may be extreme, it is by no means atypical. Many universities make it very difficult for applicants with non-traditional qualifications to apply. Many make minimal gestures to APEL and RPL principles, and others have quotas for RPL places. Given that school leaving qualifications and standardized tests are themselves often poor predicators of an applicant’s potential as a student, the justification for taking this position is unclear, to say the least.

Phillip Dhlamini has a way to go; he has only gained the right to have his application considered. But the fact that he argued his own case before the court, and won, must surely be persuasive in his determination to prove that he will be an exemplary student.


Louise Flanagan, “Veteran wins bid to apply for study”. IOL News, 10 September 2015. http://www.iol.co.za/news/crime-courts/veteran-wins-bid-to-apply-for-study-1.1914120

Quality Assurance Agency   2008. Fair admissions to higher education – a review of the implementation of the Schwartz report principles three years on.


The economics of gun violence

How much does gun violence cost a country? For South Africa, which has one of the highest per capita rates of gun violence in the world, a recent study by Gun Free South Africa puts the price at ZAR26 billion a year, or about $2 billion. This is equivalent to about 15% of South Africa’s annual national health budget.

The Gun Free South Africa briefing was prompted by a bizarre comparison made by the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA) to parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Police in early June. Hunting, PHASA claimed, contributes ZAR9 billion to the economy, justifying the easy availability of guns. The ethical implicationis, to say the least, unusual; that the death of some 5000 people a year in South Africa as a result of gun violence can be offset against the killing of a large number of animals because of the net contribution to the economy. The financial benefit may also be overstated; other estimates put the economic value at a fraction of PHASA’s claim. But profit often trumps ethics, particularly where armaments are involved. So, assuming that the sport of killing animals does indeed net South Africa ZAR9 billion a year, does this justify gun sales in economic terms?

There has yet to be a comprehensive study of the economic cost of gun violence in South Africa, but Gun Free South Africa has produced a credible proxy from the information that is available.

In 2014 each gun-injured patient cost the state health service an average of ZAR22 000 for emergency transport, surgery, ICU and hospital ward stay, diagnostic imaging and blood products. Additional costs, impossible to quantify without more research, include staff salaries and laboratory products. Looked at another way, the total cost in the same year for just one hospital in treating gunshot injuries to patients admitted for more than twelve hours was ZAR11 million. Also in 2014, 4% of the national health budget was taken up by treating some 20 000 patients across the country with serious abdominal gunshot injuries.

And then there are those who died. In calculating the economic cost of murder, GFSA has used the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) model, already accepted as a basis for estimating the cost of alcohol abuse. This puts the current average value of a life in South Africa at ZAR4.7 million. With at least 5000 people killed by guns each year, a reasonable estimate of the economic cost of lives lost is at least ZAR23.5 billion.

So even if hunting were to contribute ZAR9 billion to the South African economy each year, the price of death and injury to people from gunshot wounds is far higher.

In its 2015 report, the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development puts Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and South Africa as the four countries paying the highest price for firearm violence in terms of lives lost and economic damage. The converse, of course, is that these countries also have the most to gain by reducing gun violence, which is why appropriate and enforced public policy is important.

Here, South Africa’s trajectory over the last fifteen years is instructive. The key change in legislation was in 2000, with the promulgation of the Firearms Control Act. Published studies show that, over the following five years, there were significant reductions in deaths from gunshot wounds, with over 4500 lives saved in South Africa’s major cities during this period. A study of the killing of women and children in domestic gun violence has shown that deaths fell by a quarter in the decade following the change in legislation.

But police crime statistics suggest that these gains are now being lost, with the number of people murdered each day increasing from 43 in 2011 to 47 by 2014. There are some indications – yet to be fully tested – that this increase in the murder rate is because gun violence is again increasing. This emerging trend coincides with reports of poor enforcement of the Firearms Control Act, including easier approvals of gun licence applications by the Central Firearms Registry and fraud and corruption in firearms control management including well-publicised accusations involving the police.

Hunting is big money. It is reported that about 9000 trophy hunters come to South Africa each year, 90% Americans. And in America, studies of gun violence have but the cost at a staggering US$229 billion. Further, of course, these cold economics take no account of the emotional toll on all those affected by violence, and the prevalent damage to the quality of life that the imminence of violence brings.

As Gun Free South Africa concludes in its briefing:

While the costs associated with implementing the Firearms Control Act are high, the cost of gun violence is significant, as are the savings resulting when lives are saved from gun violence through effective gun control policy and implementation of the law.


Gun Free South Africa 2015: Firearms Control Briefing 15: What does gun violence cost? www.gfsa.org.za

Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development 2015.   Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015: Every Body Counts http://www.genevadeclaration.org/measurability/global-burden-of-armed-violence/global-burden-of-armed-violence-2015.html

Remote warriors

David Cameron’s decision to authorize the extra-judicial execution of Reyaad Khan raises some immediate issues. Beyond these, though, are conceptual questions about remote warfare using advanced technologies. These questions need to be considered because the ways in which we respond to them will shape future conflicts.

In her thought experiment framed more than fifty years ago, Hannah Arendt asked what the world would be like if the use of violence ceased to be constrained by the complexities of power and politics. Arendt was writing in a time of turbulence and change: the Cold War and nuclear armaments; anti-war protests and campus confrontations; resistance against colonialism. She conceptualized the extreme form of violence as “One against All”, a regime that would “permit one man with a push of a button to destroy whomever he pleased.”

At the time Arendt was writing, this was an impossible abstraction: “no government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers”. “One against All” belonged to science fiction: “only the development of robot soldiers, which … would eliminate the human factor completely and … could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence”.

Fast forward to our world of drones. As with now-routine US strikes, the RAF Reaper that killed Khan and two others in Syria on 21 August was unmanned and remotely controlled. The operation has been legally justified as self-defence, in the face of compelling evidence that Khan and Isis were planning terrorist attacks in the UK. The surgical precision of the strike has been emphasised, in that no-one other than the intended victims was killed or injured.

There are though broader questions about drone warfare – a dark side of the digital innovation that has changed so many aspects of our lives. One set of questions is about the digital warriors; the nature of state-sanctioned violence when an enemy is killed directly from an office in Whitehall or a command centre in the English countryside. The second set is about human fallibility; what happens when the intelligence is wrong and the innocent are denied the protection of legal processes.

As David Cole puts it in a recent and insightful piece in the New York Review of Books: “the drone is in many respects the ultimate new technology that alters the relationship between government and individuals: it empowers the state to kill by remote control from thousands of miles away”. And, or course, the agent of the state is the individual operative working in the genre of a war game, but with deadly consequences. This is analogous to the wolf leaping from the pages of the fairy tale.

One of the reasons, perhaps, that these broader issues lag behind the immediacy of political justification is the sheer speed of innovation, well known as a characteristic of digital innovation in general. Back in 2001, the US military had just 82 drones, and was at an experimental stage in the deployment of this new technology. By 2010, there were eight thousand and the administration had ceased releasing information on drone strikes as a routine protocol.

In this, the nature of conflict and violence is undergoing radical changes of similar magnitude to those that concerned Hannah Arendt in the middle of the last century. The title of one of the books that Cole reviews captures this new nexus of change: “The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones: Confronting a New Age of Threat”.

But these concerns have also long been in the public domain. They were raised by the Ministry of Defence in a Joint Doctrine Note published in 2011 that was made public when it was written and still is:

Unmanned aircraft now hold a central role in modern warfare and there is a real possibility that, after many false starts and broken promises, a technological tipping point is approaching that may well deliver a genuine revolution in military affairs. However, despite the growing ubiquity of unmanned aircraft, key questions remain over how to best procure, employ and support them.

And paragraph 515, titled “The Remote Warrior”:

With kinetic operations being controlled from several thousand miles away … the concept of fighting from barracks as it has been termed raises a number of interesting areas for debate. Is the Reaper operator walking the streets of his home town after a shift a legitimate target as a combatant? Would an attack by a Taliban sympathiser be an act of war under international law or murder under the statutes of the home state? Does a person who has the right to kill as a combatant while in the control cabin cease to be a combatant that evening on his way home? More broadly, do we fully understand the psychological effects on remote operators of conducting war at a distance?

There is a cold symmetry between aspects of these military concerns and the consequences of bad intelligence in remote warfare.

The Ministry of Defence asks whether a military operative, licensed to kill remotely, continues to be a combatant – and therefore a legitimate target – when she leaves for home after a day’s work. This is of course rhetorical. There would be outrage if an armed forces employee, walking home from work through a rural town, was killed by a bolt from the sky, and all the more so if people who happened to be nearby were killed as well. Yet this, and worse, is what happens when intelligence is bad and a drone strike goes awry.

The US protocol for the legitimate use of drones was outlined by President Obama in 2013. Strikes away from a battlefield, he said, must only be to eliminate individuals who pose an imminent threat to US persons and cannot be captured. The country in which they are located must either consent to the attack or be unwilling or unable to counter the threat. There must be a “near-certainty” that no civilians will be killed or injured.

But by the time the President outlined these principles, the US’s record in ensuring that no civilians are killed and injured in drone strikes was already questionable, as Andrew Cockburn has shown in his newly-published book.

One such intelligence error killed twenty-three civilians in 2010, including two children. The video feed from a surveillance drone in Afghanistan was hazy and operatives controlling the attack remotely from the US and elsewhere could not tell difference between a man or a woman, or a shovel and a rifle. Nevertheless, the strike was authorized. The convoy turned out to be innocent: “everyone involved tried to clarify the ambiguity [of the hazy video images] by shaping the information to fit a predetermined pattern, in this case that of hostile Taliban.”

Remote warfare raises questions, and questions within questions. The clear and present danger is that the speed of technological innovation, combined with the real emergencies of the moment, preclude proper consideration of complex and difficult issues. This danger was well framed by the Ministry of Defence in its 2011 doctrine note:

Unmanned systems pose more than just legal dilemmas. The ethics and morals-related questions of when, where, and how automated or autonomous unmanned systems may be used, have been tentatively explored in academia (and in popular science fiction), but we are only now starting to require real-world answers. Many of the dilemmas apply to the use of unmanned systems in any environment, not just in the air. Beyond the question of whether an action is legal there is now the concern of whether an action is morally justified. Will the advent of increasing autonomy raise complex dilemmas centred on the moral and ethical justification of our actions? For instance, will future wars be fought remotely, at least initially, with little or no loss of friendly human life? Is human nature such that the next arms race will seek to pitch increasingly complex unmanned systems against other unmanned systems or humans?


Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”. New York, Harcourt 1969

Andrew Cockburn, “Kill Chain: the Rise of the High-Tech Assassins”. Henry Holt, 2015

David Cole “The New America: Little Privacy, Big Terror” New York Review of Books, August 13 2015

Ministry of Defence, “The UK approach to unmanned aircraft systems”. Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 (JDN 2/11), 30 March 2011. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/33711/20110505JDN_211_UAS_v2U.pdf

Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum, “The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones: Confronting a New Age of Threat. Basic Books, 2014

Migrant or Refugee? It matters

Here are headlines from the BBC on one day this last week: “new arrest over Austria migrant deaths”, “Dresden rally in support of refugees”, “hundreds of migrants arriving in Berlin”, “Greek island refugee camp growing”, “new Austria migrant vehicle found”. In common with many other news media, the BBC uses the terms “migrant” and “refugee” interchangeably. Does this matter?

A migrant is “a person who moves from one place or another to find work or better living conditions”. A refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster”. All refugees are migrants, but not all migrants are refugees. Evidently, the terms are non interchangeable; the Governor of the Bank of England is a migrant, but he’s not a refugee.

Given the extent and chaos of Europe’s current crisis – the most extensive displacement of people since the Second World War – it could be argued that the more general term migrant is preferable. While very many of those crossing the Mediterranean are escaping war and persecution others are not, and these include criminal profiteers who control and operate the escape routes.

But the case for exactitude is outweighed by the facility of simple words to mislead. To use the term “migrant” is to risk political distraction and abrogation of responsibility.

This point has been made by Barry Malone for Al-Jazeera:

Imagine waking your children in the morning. Imagine feeding and dressing them. Imagine pulling a little girl’s hair into a ponytail, arguing with a little boy about which pair of shoes he wants to wear. Now imagine, as you are doing that, you know later today you will strap their vulnerable bodies into enveloping life jackets and take them with you in a rubber dinghy – through waters that have claimed many who have done the same. Think of the story you’d have to tell to reassure them. Think of trying to make it fun. Consider the emotional strength needed to smile at them and conceal your fear. What would it feel like if that experience – your frantic flight from war – was then diminished by a media that crudely labelled you and your family “migrants”? And imagine having little voice to counter a description so commonly used by governments and journalists. The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.

Behind this general point is a drier technical and legal set of issues that matter even more.

Refugees have clear rights in terms of the 1951 Convention. This provides a formal definition. A refugee as a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” In law, refugees cannot be repatriated against their will if their life and freedom are under threat.

In contrast, countries are able to deport migrants who do not have appropriate documentation, and usually do. To insist, as some governments are doing, that the many people fleeing war and violence across the Middle East and North Africa are “migrants” is to keep open the option of sending them back into the maelstrom. For example, Theresa May, in commenting on Britain’s latest annual net migration figures, catches European Union job seekers, students and refugees in the same net of “uncontrolled migration”.

In calling for the reinstatement of strict national border controls, the Home Secretary places the culpability for current abuses of human rights on “the callous gangs who sell false dreams and trade on the free borders within the EU”.

Theirs, though, is not the only culpability. Britain is a leading arms trader, selling sophisticated weaponry and military technology across the world. There can be little doubt that some of the arms now used to force people to flee in fear for their lives were designed and manufactured in Britain, with significant benefits to the British economy.

In 2013, as the present crisis across the Middle East and North Africa was escalating, a committee of Parliament reported that Britain had issued some 3000 export licences for military related equipment, valued at £12.3bn, to countries on the British government’s official human rights abuse watch list. This includes countries that are now at the epicentre of the conflicts that are driving their people into exile.

Blood money (Guardian 2013)

source: Guardian, 17 July 2013.

The current refugee crisis has no easy answers. But solutions will be all the more difficult to find when options are clouded by weasel words. Al-Jazeera is surely right. These are refugees, who are entitled to the protections set out in international law and humane appreciation of the terrible circumstances that they face. The words matter.


BBC “Theresa May: Free EU movement ‘for those with jobs’. 30 August 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-34100643

Barry Malone “Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean ‘migrants’”. Al Jazeera 20 August 2015 http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/editors-blog/2015/08/al-jazeera-mediterranean-migrants-150820082226309.html

David Marsh “We deride them as ‘migrants’. Why not call them people?” Guardian 28 August 2015   http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/28/migrants-people-refugees-humanity

Kim Sengupta “Blood money: UK’s £12.3bn arms sales to repressive states”. Guardian, 17 July 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/blood-money-uks-123bn-arms-sales-to-repressive-states-8711794.html

Somini Sengupta “Migrant or Refugee? There Is a Difference, With Legal Implications”. New York Times 27 August 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/world/migrants-refugees-europe-syria.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0