Exploring the tension between the discourses of affirmative action and the knowledge economy

Waglay, Afsar Ali (2013-03)

Thesis (MEd)--Stellenbosch University, 2013.

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Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: South Africa needs to ensure equal opportunity for all to higher education, and given that it also needs to correct the drastic imbalances brought about by apartheid, affirmative action is seen as a strategy to pursue both goals. Affirmative action is comprised of programs and policies that grant favorable treatment on the basis of race or gender to government-defined “disadvantaged” individuals. However, affirmative action is not without its own challenges and difficulties. The main question that this thesis addresses is “what are the tensions between applying affirmative action policies in South African higher education institutions and the demands of a knowledge economy within a globalised world?” I argue that though universities need to be more demographically representative and broaden access to previously disadvantaged individuals by adjusting entry requirements, they cannot compromise on their quality of graduates by adjusting their exit criteria in line with racial representivity. That would undermine the very worth of higher education as a social good, the dignity of the individual graduate, as well as the economic growth of the country. Accusations that affirmative action is merely “reverse discrimination” are refuted by an appeal to Rawls’s Principle of Difference which holds that policies of inequality can be socially just. Drawing on Charles Taylor and Wally Morrow, I posit that within a democracy, affirmative action should be seen as a shared rather than a convergent good for broadening access to quality education. But whereas broadening formal access seems like a legitimate and necessary step to address the inherited inequities, the broadening of epistemological access would undermine the very aims of quality education. Furthermore, I argue that formal access should be driven by the politics of difference, but that epistemological access that ensures educational success should be driven by the politics of equal dignity. In order to see how some of these concepts and policies of affirmative action play out in an actual institution, I look at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Here the main debates relating to its affirmative action policy are whether demographic representivity is the only outcome for evaluating the success of affirmative action, and whether “disadvantaged” individuals should be selected on criteria other than race. It also considers whether its affirmative action policies could compromise its functioning and ability to supply quality qualifications to the required number of disadvantaged individuals. There is no easy and simple answer to whether affirmative action in fact promotes equal opportunity to higher education and equips all South African graduates with the necessary skills for a knowledge economy. It would be therefore important to do further research on what nonrace based affirmative action policies might entail while keeping in mind the shifts in the global economy and the need for academic rigor. Furthermore, more longitudinal research needs to be done on the complex consequences of affirmative action, on both an individual level with issues of identity and career mobility, and on a broader socio-economic level with issues of economic growth and social welfare.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Suid-Afrika moet hom beywer tot die daarstelling van gelyke geleenthede vir almal tot hoëronderwys, en gegewe dat daar ’n behoefte is om drastiese ongelykhede van apartheid reg te stel, word regstellende aksie gesien as a strategie om beide doelstellings na te streef. Regstellende aksie bestaan uit programme en beleide wat daarop gemik is om begunstigde behandeling te dien aan “voorheen benadeelde” individue, soos deur die staat gedefineer, op grond van ras en geslag. Maar regstellende aksie is nie sonder sy eie uitdagings en swaarhede nie. Die hoofvraag wat hierdie tesis addreseer, is: “Watter gespannenhede is daar tussen die uitvoering van regstellende aksie beleide in Suid-Afrikaanse Hoëronderwys instellings en die eise van ’n kennis-ekonomie binne ’n geglobaliseerde wêreld?” Ek argumenteer dat, ofskoon daar ’n behoefte is vir universiteite om meer demografies verteenwoordigend te wees en hul toegang tot voorheen benadeelde individue te verbreed deur toelatingsvereistes te wysig, kan hulle nie kompromeer op hul gehalte van gegradueerdes deur uitgangskriteria in lyn met ras verteenwoordiging nie. Dit sal juis die waarde van hoëronderwys as ’n sosiale goedheid, die waardigheid van die individule gegradueerde asook die ekonomiese groei van die land ondermyn. Aantygings dat regstellende aksie bloot “wedergekeerde diskriminasie” is, word weerlê deur ’n verwysing na Rawls se Beginsel van Verskil wat stel dat beleide van ongelykhede maatskaplike regverdiging kan hê. Gegrond op Charles Taylor en Wally Morrow, postuleer ek dat, binne ’n demokrasie, regstellende aksie beskou moet word as ’n gedeelde eerder as ’n konvergente goedheid om gehalte onderwys verder toeganklik te maak. Maar waar verbrede formele toegang gesien kan word as ’n wettige en nodige stap om geërfde ongelykhede aan te spreek, sal die verbreding van epistemologiese toegang juis die doelstellings van gehalte onderwys ondermyn. Verder voer ek aan dat formele toegang aangedryf moet word deur die politiek van verskil, maar dat epistemologiese toegang wat opvoedkundige sukses verseker, aangedryf moet word deur die politiek van gelyke waardigheid. Ten einde te sien hoe van hierdie konsepte en beleide van regstellende aksie hulself uitspeel in eintlike inrigtings van onderwys, kyk ek na die Universiteit Kaapstad (UK). Hier draai die debat aangaande regstellende aksie beleid om of die demografiese verteenwoordiging die enigste uitkoms is ter evaluering van die sukses van regstellende aksie, en of “benadeelde” individue geselekteer moet word op grond van kriteria anders as ras. Dit (UK) oorweeg ook of sy regstellende beleide sy funksionering en vermoë om gehalte kwalifikasies aan die verlangde getal benadeelde individue kompromiteer. Daar is geen eenvoudige en maklike antwoord betreffende regstellende aksie en of dit gelyke geleenthede tot hoëronderwys promoveer en alle Suid-Afrikaanse gegradueerders toerus met die nodige bevoegdhede vir ’n kennis-ekonomie nie. Dit sal derhalwe belangrik wees om verdere navorsing te doen oor wat nie-rasgebaseerde regstellende aksie kan behels terwyl in gedagte gehou word die skuiwe in die globale ekonomie en die behoefte aan akademiese kwaliteit. Verder moet veel meer longitudinale navorsing gedoen word oor die ingewikkelde gevolge van regstellende aksie op beide die individuele vlak met kwessies van identiteit en beroepsmobiliteit en op breër sosio-ekonomiese vlak met kwessies van ekonomiese groei en maatskaaplike welsyn.

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