Approximately one-quarter of the world's countries have some kind of affirmative action for students who are seeking higher education. Yet, if you're like most people in the United States (U.S.), you've never considered any system besides the ones that affect you. While there is no nationwide affirmative law in the U.S., many public and private schools boast a special selection policy for minority students. The opportunity to advance these students academically is amazing, however, it doesn't come without backlash. This complex system of affirmative action plays out very differently depending on the country, and in many cases, it's not what you expect.
With the recent results of Brazil's presidential election, there's no telling how affirmative action may change in the future. But in 2012, Brazil enacted a law that requires public universities to reserve half of their admission spots for largely poor students and drastically increase the number of students of African descent. Controversy over these racial quotas quickly spiked, and some students would lie about their race to get into a better university. Because of this, it became commonplace to present yourself in front of a panel if you self-identified as mixed race or black so that they can judge your race. The panel asks the student questions, as well as takes measurements such as nose width and hair texture. While the panel seems to have deterred white students from marking themselves as black, the system faces backlash from people of color who are unjustly stripped of their identity as a result.
In the 1970s, Malaysia enacted several Bumiputera policies, including affirmative action. "Bumiputera" means "sons of the soil," and refers to Malays and other indigenous groups. The Malaysian government hoped this would right a wrong, as the British colonial rule favored Chinese and Indian immigrants over Malay people. Bumiputera people have definitely benefited, and their area of influence has expanded---but there are several downsides to this policy. Many believe it is just pushing discrimination onto another group, especially since it is solely based on race rather than socioeconomic status. Bumiputera policies have also been accused of providing a platform for Malay supremacists.
France's system of affirmative action is somewhat similar to the US, but it is actually based on geography rather than race. Race is a touchy subject in France, and the French Constitution prevents distinction based on race, religion or sex (whether discriminatory or positive). Many racial minorities still benefit from affirmative action, however, because it targets working-class and immigrant neighborhoods (Zones d'Éducation Prioritaire). This program is not enforced nationally but has been picked up by several elite institutions since 2001, when it was adopted by Institut d'Études Politiques. The program is not perfect, as French neighborhoods tend to be more socioeconomically mixed and aren't always the best indicator of income, but it has increased racial and ethnic diversity among higher learning institutions.
5. South Africa
Affirmative action was introduced to South Africa during the aftermath of Apartheid. The University of Cape Town (UCT), widely considered to be the best school in the country, was almost exclusively open to white people during Apartheid. In the mid-1980s, UCT adopted an affirmative admissions policy that allowed lower test scores for black applicants and other disadvantaged populations. This policy is still in place today because even several years after Apartheid most black students go to very poor township and rural schools and do not receive as good of an education as their white counterparts. Though this opportunity provides underprivileged black students with an incredible education, many of the students admitted this way struggle with an education gap between them and their peers.
In the late 1990s, several Colombian schools adopted affirmative action policies. Most began by supporting indigenous students, but later expanded to include Afro-Colombian students. To be considered, however, applicants would have to be certified as their particular race or ethnicity using photographs and records of their ancestry. In September 2012, an amendment was ratified that requires quotas for black Colombians in universities as well as government agencies and armed forces. While this in no way gets rid of the racism that is still very prevalent in the country, affirmative action has provided many opportunities for black students (especially those in the socioeconomic minority).
Affirmative action in Finland is very unique because it focuses on linguistics rather than race or gender. Swedish-speakers are the minority in Finland, and the number has been steadily shrinking for several years. Many Finnish-speakers resist learning Swedish, though the language has been spoken there for hundreds of years and remains an official language of Finland. There are university quotas for Swedish-speaking students. While this affirmative action has supported the survival of a linguistic minority, critiques consider it "reverse affirmative action" because Swedish-speakers tend to be wealthier.
Everyone is so used to hearing the controversies about affirmative action in the United States, but it's definitely no cakewalk in other countries either. There is no perfect system, but there's a lot that we can learn from each other. At the end of the day, we all have the same intention—making sure everyone has the opportunities they deserve. The road of affirmative action may be a bit rocky, but I'm hopeful that the US and other countries will keep improving these policies and make sure everyone has the equity they need.