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.


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