Validity, fairness and justice in university admission. The role of language and language assessment in multilingual South Africa

Start - End 
2021 - 2022 (ongoing)



The purpose of this application is to secure the funds to prepare a VLIR-UOS TEAM application (i.e., visit). The TEAM funding application we develop will focus on generating and exchanging knowledge through research, which will contribute to the fight against poverty and inequality.


Brief state of the art


As is the case in many contexts, South Africa cries out for attention to responsible language assessment (Weideman, 2021), specifically as that relates to university admission. Language testing for university admission testing has become a global practice that impacts the lives of millions of local and international prospective students across the globe. At the same time, we note that some of the tests used for access to tertiary study have not been shown to be accurate predictors of future academic success or even of being able to meet the language requirements of academic life (Deygers, Van den Branden & Van Gorp, 2017). One obvious reason for this is that language is a necessary yet insufficient condition for academic success. Other possible reasons lie in the operationalization of academic language proficiency and in the validation of university admission language tests. On both fronts, substantial gains are still to be made:

  1. The operationalization of university admission language tests often relies on theories of communicative competence that have rarely been challenged and often fail to reflect real-world demands.
  2. The validation of these tests often occurs along the lines of argument-based validity theory, even though this theory has its limitations in real-world applications and alternative approaches have been proposed (see Weideman 2017, 2019).


It is not an exaggeration to say that – exceptions notwithstanding – university admission language testing is a field that has a global impact on the lives of many, but it is too rarely challenged. This project seeks to examine how we can constructively challenge the operationalization and validation of language assessment and tests in a postcolonial context of access to and entry into higher education.


Development relevance

With this funding we wish to explore how we can contribute to improving language assessment practice in a university admission context in a multilingual society that is characterized by far-reaching linguistic and sociolinguistic diversity and an active institutional and government policy of academic capacity building and emancipation of historically disadvantaged populations. Given the local context and the university admission policies adopted by South African universities we will focus additionally on examining the potential of individualized diagnostic instruments rather than high-stakes tests. In doing so, we will focus not only on how fairly language ability is used in regulating admission, but also on improving capabilities.


Our research will therefore also contribute to the theoretical understanding of assessing languages for academic purposes from a diagnostic perspective. The theoretical and practical advances will contribute to a fairer and more just university admission language policy in South Africa, in Flanders, and beyond. Indeed, our project will not focus not only on regulating admission, but also on determining which aspects of academic language individual students may need to address in order to meet the language requirements of academia.





Albert Weideman