University of Cape Town History
The University of Cape Town (UCT) is South Africa’s oldest university, and is one of Africa’s leading teaching and research institutions.
The birth of an institution
The University of Cape Town was founded in 1829 as the South African College, a high school for boys.
The College had a small tertiary-education facility that grew substantially after 1880, when the discovery of gold and diamonds in the north – and the resulting demand for skills in mining – gave it the financial boost it needed to grow.
The College developed into a fully fledged university during the period 1880 to 1900, thanks to increased funding from private sources and the government.
During these years, the College built its first dedicated science laboratories, and started the departments of mineralogy and geology to meet the need for skilled personnel in the country’s emerging diamond and gold-mining industries.
Another key development during this period was the admission of women. In 1886 the Professor of Chemistry, Paul Daniel Hahn, convinced the Council to admit four women into his chemistry class on a trial basis. Owing to the exceptional standard of work by the women students, the College decided to admit women students permanently in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1887.
The years 1902 to 1918 saw the establishment of the Medical School, the introduction of engineering courses and a Department of Education.
UCT was formally established as a university in 1918, on the basis of the Alfred Beit bequest and additional substantial gifts from mining magnates Julius Wernher and Otto Beit. The new university also attracted substantial support from well-wishers in the Cape Town area and, for the first time, a significant state grant.
Ten years later, in 1928, the university was able to move the bulk of its facilities to the magnificent site at Groote Schuur on the slopes of Devil’s Peak on land bequeathed to the nation by Cecil John Rhodes as the site for a national university, where it celebrated its centenary the following year.
“Moscow on the Hill”
Apart from establishing itself as a leading research and teaching university in the decades that followed, UCT earned itself this nickname during the period 1960 to 1990 for its sustained opposition to apartheid, particularly in higher education.
The university admitted its first small group of black students in the 1920s. The number of black students remained relatively low until the 1980s and 90s, when the institution, reading and welcoming the signs of change in the country, committed itself to a deliberate and planned process of internal transformation.
From the 1980s to the early 1990s, the number of black students admitted to the university rose by 35 percent. By 2004, nearly half of UCT’s 20 000 students were black and just under half of the student body was female. Today we have one of the most diverse campuses in South Africa.
Today, against the backdrop of a rapidly changing and diversifying democratic society, UCT is implementing an action guide on transformation looking at issues such as staff diversity, student equity and access, the curriculum, leadership and governance, and attitudes and behaviour.
The university views transformation as a multifaceted and integrated process by which it continuously renews itself in an ongoing effort to represent in all aspects of its life and functions the vision and ideals of its mission and values. In this effort, UCT strives to redress past injustices, promote equal opportunity for all, reflect in the profile of its students and staff the demographics of South Africa, safeguard human rights and ensure that its system of governance, its teaching and learning, and its research and service uphold the inherent dignity of all and meet the development needs of South Africa’s emerging democracy.
For further information on UCT’s transformation process view the transformation pages.
Aspiring to academic excellence
UCT’s success can be can be measured by the scope of study it offers and the calibre of its graduates.
The university has six faculties – Commerce, Engineering & the Built Environment, Law, Health Sciences, Humanities and Science – which are supported by UCT’s Centre for Higher Education Development, which addresses students’ teaching and learning needs.
Among its more than 100 000 alumni are the late Professor Christiaan Barnard, the world-renowned heart surgeon, and three Nobel laureates, Sir Aaron Klug, the late Professor Alan MacLeod Cormack and JM Coetzee.
UCT also has more than 60 specialist research units that provide supervision for postgraduate work and is home to more than a quarter of South Africa’s A-rated researchers – academics who are considered world leaders in their fields.
UCT continues to work towards its goal to be Africa’s leading research university.
The early history of the university is also set out in:
The History of the SA College: 1829-1918 (2 volumes), by William Ritchie (Maskew Miller, Cape Town, 1918)
The SA College and the University of Cape Town: 1829-1929, by Eric A Walker (Centenary Volume published for the Council of the University of Cape Town by the Cape Times, 1929)
The History of the University of Cape Town 1928-1948: The Formative Years, by Howard Phillips.