Coming soon: Summer School, rooted in 100 years of lifelong learning

06 December 2023 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Lerato Maduna. Read time 10 min.
The EMS team have worked hard to attract a younger audience. Pictured here are 100UP learners attending a Saturday Summer School lecture.
The EMS team have worked hard to attract a younger audience. Pictured here are 100UP learners attending a Saturday Summer School lecture.

In January 2024, the University of Cape Town (UCT) will celebrate 100 years of continuous lifelong learning, publicly sharing its rich body of knowledge and research with the broader population.

It began in 1854, when a notice in the South African Commercial Advertiser said that lectures in chemistry would be delivered at the South African College (the forerunner to UCT) three times a week. In 1855, Professor Rodnick Noble launched a public lecture programme “to bring within understanding of ordinary people the results of the research and investigation being undertaken in literary and scientific spheres throughout the Western world”.

Here were the early roots of what later became Summer School, the flagship programme of the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies (EMS) in the Development and Alumni Department (DAD). Summer School will celebrate its 74th ‘edition’ from 13 to 27 January 2024.

Writing in the foreword to the 2024 Summer School programme, DAD’s executive director, Sarah Archer, said, “Annual Summer School has a long and proud history of delivering lectures and courses to the public ... In 1924, the Extension Lectures Committee of the University Senate was formed, formalising the ad hoc lectures offered. This committee organised fortnightly lectures that were given by members of staff and other prominent authorities.”


“The most ambitious scheme for fostering adult education yet attempted in the Western Province has been initiated by UCT.”

Principal of the university at the time, TB Davie, noted the development would be a major contribution to adult educational facilities in the country.

The Cape Times followed with an article proclaiming that, “The most ambitious scheme for fostering adult education yet attempted in the Western Province has been initiated by UCT, with the creation of a Board of Extra-Mural Studies to provide courses of lectures to the public at a university level.”

Dr Medeé Rall, the director of EMS, said that the advisory board, which existed when Summer School started back in 1949/50, is being relaunched, after being disestablished some years back.

One of its kind in Africa

Over seven decades later, Summer School remains true to the university’s early intentions.

The first Summer School was planned in 1949 (to start the following year) to offer courses for servicemen who’d returned after the Second World War. In February 1953, a small EMS staff held the first distinctive Summer School, titled “Southern Africa in Perspective”.

Dr Rall said that during the 1950s, Summer School extension lectures were offered in KwaLanga and country districts and the department formed a partnership with the Institute of Citizenship.

In the 1960s, two community projects were initiated, and in-service courses were held at the St Francis Adult Education Centre. Later, Summer School lectures were presented in Paarl and Worcester – and even aboard a Durban-bound holiday cruise ship!

“But we can still claim that Summer School is the only one of its kind in Africa,” said Rall.

Service to community

While excursions such as those aboard cruise ships are no longer feasible, the ethos of community education has continued, said Rall, by taking Summer School to the public and partnering with communities and groups that UCT doesn’t currently reach.

In the 1980s, EMS retrained adult educators to reconstruct educational practice and strengthened its community adult education projects.

EMS’s community excursions, linked to Summer School’s intended social impact, now focus on resource-poor communities in Philippi, Kensington, Masiphumelele and Hout Bay.

“The team has worked hard to transform its offerings to reach new and different audiences – and increase the focus on Africa,” said Rall. “Our extension lecture programme spans the university’s teaching disciplines and keeps the public abreast of what innovative research and scholarship have to say about key issues that arise in our natural and social world.”


“Our extension lecture programme … keeps the public abreast of what innovative research and scholarship have to say about key issues.”

For many, Summer School offers the only chance of entering university; for others it consolidates their alma mater.

January’s programme is filled with variety, from workshops, lectures on topical issues such as artificial intelligence to food security, art and science. It includes guest lectures, and two concerts at the Baxter Theatre Centre: the music of Clara and Robert Schumann and a performance by young stars of Opera UCT.

Excursions include campus tours, two tours of the award-winning Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking Afrika (d-school Afrika). Registrar Emeritus Hugh Amoore will lead heritage tours on campus and former staffer in the planning department Geoff de Wet will be presenting a lecture followed by a half-hour tour of upper campus.

Summer School has also been extended to include online courses during the year, such as the Applied Complexity Science course and a d-school Afrika course. In the pipeline are courses on the balanced scorecard management system. This is aimed at translating an organisation’s strategic goals into a set of organisational performance objectives that, in turn, are measured, monitored to ensure that an organisation’s strategic goals are met.

Delve, and learn more

The EMS team have also worked hard to attract a younger audience.

For the first time, students and new graduates have been offered free entrance to Summer School, promoted through UCT’s Careers Service. The response from students reflected their keenness to explore subjects they know little about, and to stretch their views of the world, said Rall.

One student wrote, “I’m amazed at the variety of courses. There are a couple of interesting topics that I would like to delve into and learn more about.”

For regular attendees, there is the thrill of being back on campus, reuniting with old friends and being enriched by the many and varied offerings. Alumnus Dr Melodie Hougaard (now Wessels) said that she had attended her first Summer School in 1969 as a fourth-year medical student.

“Thankfully I took that opportunity. Since then, having had the privilege of attending this treasured institution on many occasions, my mind has been widened and my knowledge of subjects far removed from my experience in my chosen profession broadened in ways I feel sure would never have happened.

I recall the series of lectures by Professor Robin Hallett, who exposed me to areas of Africa I hardly knew about, other than the country names on a map. Who was Julius Nyerere? What were the messages in the writings of Chinua Achebe? Then there were the opera delights of Professor Gregorio Fiasconaro.”

The range of topics she has explored has been wide, said Dr Hougaard.

“I have tried to follow the poetry presented in recent years, needing to concentrate and strain my aging brain quite considerably. I have loved the exposure to the arts both visual and auditory.
Gardens of the world, the fauna and flora of our beautiful land, the reminders of the importance of respecting our earth have all been a part of our tapestry.


“We are thrilled that our family, children and even grandchildren have signed up to join us.”

“And the haunting discourses on politics and transformation have given me a deeper understanding of the meaning of difference and the need for ‘From Inclusion to Belonging!’ The exposure to literature keeps our bedside books piled high for much of the year.

“We are thrilled that our family, children and even grandchildren have signed up to join us for a few courses [in 2024].”

Another regular is Sue Mol, who first came to Summer School some 17 years ago when she was wondering what to do in her retirement.

“As I had friends who had been coming for years, I thought I would try it for one year. Well, it was such a wonderful experience and I have been coming ever since. The various lectures on subjects that I was interested in just broadened my outlook and then I started to do lectures on new subjects. The lectures were mostly five days and so I was only able to do a few but once I went on pension it was so much easier.

“I hope to continue my attendance for as long as possible.”

Another Summer School ‘long timer’ is Jan Thomas, who has attended Summer School for many years.

“It is just a wonderful experience on so many levels – new learning skills, opportunities to discover new worlds of information, delightful music experience and thinking and therapy; one of last year’s music courses on the influence ‘theme tune’ film music has on one was absolutely fantastic.

“I have booked for 12 courses this year and as I turn 80 next year, I will continue to look forward to ‘January stimulation’ every year. Many congratulations [to the EMS team] for putting energy and enthusiasm into these amazing courses and sharing with us all.”

Download the 2024 Summer School Brochure Book through Webtickets

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.