Year-end message

22 December 2017 | From the VC's Desk

Dear members of the UCT community

As the end of the year approaches, I write to wish you well over the festive season.  I hope you all enjoy a well-deserved and invigorating break. 

The 2017 academic year was an exceptionally long and compressed one because of extended deferred exams in January and the late start of the first semester. I am writing to thank you for your support this year. It also required everyone to put in extra effort to ensure that teaching was completed and the exams successfully delivered, despite the threat of disruption by protesters.

The focus on ensuring the effective and timely completion of the academic year could overshadow the many remarkable milestones that were achieved this year, which are sometimes less visible than the stresses and strains.  So I would like to share some of these with you, and thank you for the contributions you have made to the successes of the year. 

There are too many achievements to list without extending this letter beyond a tolerable length. The purpose is not a comprehensive review but a taste of the areas of teaching, research, engaged scholarship and student affairs, most of which directly or indirectly address our transformation agenda.

UCT remains tops

UCT retained its ranking as the top university in Africa in most global university surveys. In addition, in subject area rankings, UCT frequently ranked in the top 100 or even top 50 worldwide. Some examples are: Ornithology - 3rd and Area Studies - 4th in the world (CWUR),  Development Studies – 10th and Geography 47th (QS), mining and mineral engineering - 8th  and public health - 40th  (Shanghai GRAS), clinical and preclinical medicine 61 (THE) and 12 other subject areas in the top 100.

Outstanding academic achievers

Professor Valerie Mizrahi and Professor Carolyn Williamson have been awarded platinum and gold medals respectively by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC). Professor Heather Zar has been announced as the 2018 L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Laureate for Africa and the Arab States, in recognition of her wide-ranging contributions to child health, which have improved – and saved – children’s lives across the globe, as well as helping to shape international policy. The prestigious award is given annually to five women scientists worldwide, one from each continent.

Six UCT academics were celebrated for their scholarly contributions and research excellence at the 2017 National Research Foundation Awards in September. Two UCT researchers received special recognition awards - Professor Bongani Mayosi and Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza, and four were recognised for receiving or renewing an A-rating, placing them as leaders in their fields nationally and internationally – Professor Peter Ryan, Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, Professor Frank Brombacher, Professor George Janelidze.

They have recently been joined by Professor Kelly Chibally, Professor Keertan Dheda and Emeritus Professor Michael Feast, who received their A-ratings in December. This brief selection of awardees ignores many others who were recognised during the year.

Laptop project rolled out

Recognising that it is now a serious handicap for a student not to have 24/7 access to the internet and digital resources, as well as the expectation that almost all work is now done on computer, this year the university for the first time provided free laptops to more than 800 first-year students on financial aid. This will also be rolled out again next year to first years, so that eventually all students will have laptops.

New UCT presence on Cape Flats

We launched the Graduate School of Business’ MTN Solution Space in Phillipi Village in July – which gave UCT its first physical footprint on the Cape Flats. This initiative brings the university’s expertise and resources in business studies closer to the communities of Philippi, Nyanga, Gugulethu, Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha.

Landmark achievements of the School Improvement Initiative

The Schools Improvement Initiative (SII) launched was launched five years ago in communities that UCT identified as potential feeder areas to make the university’s student body more representative of Western Cape demographics. One element of the SII is the 100-up programme which identifies some 100 students in grade 10 in the 20 high schools in Khayelitsha and provides them with extra classes every Saturday at UCT and also summer and winter camps in our residence, for three years. Other students from schools in Mitchells Plain are included in grade 12 giving about 180 100-up students writing matric each year. A total of 778 matriculants from Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain exited the 100-Up programme between 2013 and 2016 – Of these, 709 obtained bachelor degree passes (91%) and 643 enrolled at a tertiary institution. Almost half (293 candidates) were admitted to study at UCT. Last year saw the first of these cohorts graduating from UCT.

Helping to tackle Cape Town’s water crisis

As the Western Cape faces the most serious water crisis in decades, the expertise of UCT academics in the field is much in demand, and they have been consulted on a regular basis by politicians and the media. Many students are undertaking research to contribute to these initiatives, one of which, in chemical engineering, has resulted in the world’s first full-scale working unit for eutectic freeze crystallisation treatment of waste water which will soon be operational at the Tweefontein colliery in Mpumalanga.

Major advance in cardiovascular research

Fifty years after the world’s first successful heart transplant‚ researchers at UCT’s Hatter Institute for Cardiovascular Research in Africa, through global collaboration, identified a new gene that is a major cause of sudden death among young people and athletes. An all-female UCT team made the discovery, which was announced in March 2017.

UCT selected to contribute to the UNDP

UCT is one of only nine universities in the world that have been chosen by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to develop a research agenda that will better leverage private investment to finance the UN’s sustainable development goals. UCT’s initiative will be led by the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School of Business.

Launch of Institute of Design Thinking

Early in the year, a formal launch celebration was held for the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking (d-school). The only one of its kind in the country, this is the third d-school to be funded by the Hasso Plattner Foundation (the others are at Stanford and Potsdam universities). At the cutting edge of pedagogy in design thinking, the new school aims to catalyse innovative approaches to problem-solving by bringing different disciplines together, offering its courses to UCT students, and as executive programmes to leaders in the private and public sectors.

Innovation in Careers Services


Universities increasingly recognize that they have responsibility for preparing and assisting their graduates to get jobs. Our Careers Services, rated the best in the country last year and amongst the best in the world, has long linked students to employers through databases, career fairs, facilities for companies to recruit and interview on campus, and helping students prepare for job applications and interviews. In recent years the Careers Service expanded to promote recruitment by NGOs and social enterprises. In 2017 for the first time, the UCT Careers Service embarked on a new range of activities aimed at empowering students to create their own jobs and highlighting entrepreneurship as a career option.

Research equipment and facilities

I want to single out just two areas of many, where we have made or are planning significant investments. Two new super-resolution microscopes will help researchers take an unprecedentedly close look into the cellular processes that govern diseases like tuberculosis, cancer and HIV/AIDS. The state-of-the-art, multi-functional Carl Zeiss confocal and super-resolution microscopes are based in UCT’s Confocal and Light Microscope Imaging Facility in the Department of Human Biology and the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine.

We have completed the fundraising for renovating a building on the Groote Schuur hospital campus at the cost of R118 million to be the home of the new neurosciences institute. The construction will begin in early 2018.

Teaching facilities

The Classroom Renewal Project was completed. This has been a five-year, R104 million initiative to upgrade the seating, lighting and acoustics as well as the podiums, display equipment and access to technology support staff in every upgraded lecture theatre. The project included equipping lecture theatres with technology that automatically videos a lecture and the accompanying blackboard and PowerPoint notes. The recording is then made available to students online.

Student accommodation

For the first time in 2017, in order to address the shortage of accommodation that had triggered the ‘Shackville’ protests in 2016, the university rented rooms in private student residences, which allowed us to cope better with the somewhat unpredictable demand for student housing.

Student and staff wellness

Mental disorders, particularly anxiety and depression, appear to be a growing problem on campuses worldwide, including UCT. The university, via the Development and Alumni Department, has secured significant additional funding during the year to boost the Student Wellness Service. Free mental health assistance has also been made available to staff through the Human Resources Department responding to the unusual stresses that our colleagues have been under with ongoing protest action on campus. A student mental health policy for UCT has also been developed.

The environment is still fragile and uncertain, given the recent announcement by President Zuma that will radically change the student funding system, with no lead-in time to really understand the implications and implement the systems required. But the commitment to increase core funding for the higher education sector is good news for all of us.

I am indebted to each of you for helping UCT to achieve what we have this year. I look forward to seeing what fresh accomplishments we can achieve together in 2018.


Dr Max Price

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