The University of Cape Town’s Academic Program


A typical weekday as a semester study abroad student at the University of Cape Town begins over an hour before class. No matter that at Washington University in St. Louis, I could roll out of bed at a quarter till with time to spare — the walk to class in Cape Town is not to be missed. The trek takes me past a KFC, a “Happy 5 Rand Stock”variety shop selling suspiciously cheap toilet paper and spandex workout outfits, and minibus taxi operators hanging like stunt doubles out of the door of their vehicle, screaming “WINEBECCKK!” or “CAPPPPE TOWN!” at the passerby. The commute takes almost half an hour, but the real payoff comes in the last five minutes when I crest a flight of stairs and look on to what has to be one of the best-placed campuses in the world — and my academic base for the fall semester of 2008.

The University of Cape Town is perched on the foot of Devil’s Peak, one summit in a ridge that scenically redeems even the dodgiest quarters of the city.  Not that campus needs the help.  Modeled after the Ivies to the extent that all of the buildings are brined in vine, UCT would be a pleasant enough place to learn in, say, Missouri or even England. But there is nothing in those places to compare with looking up on your way between classes, watching clouds wisp through the dry, pitched summit, and feeling a bit like an extra in Lord of the Rings.

Of course, the campus isn’t there for it’s own sake. There’s some learning that goes on, too, but for many Americans, this is less the end than the means. The University of Cape Town is a large public school, and like such schools at home, experiences vary widely from department to department and class to class. Classes generally meet in medium size to large lectures (75-700 students) three or four times a week and in tutorials (around 15-30 students) once or twice a week. Because classes meet more often than in the states, study abroad students generally take three or four classes.

UCT students come from all over the continent to what is often boasted of as the best university in Africa. The student body has a level of diversity that American colleges can only equal in their admissions brochures, with variations on skin color, languages and ethnic makeup that make a mockery of imported racial classifications.

UCT remains a good deal whiter then the surrounding community, city, and country and a lot of cliques seem to be racially homogenous. Still, in many ways the real attraction at UCT is less the lectures than the students listening to them. There’s literally a world of difference between having a lecture talk about polygamy and having a Namibian student describe an uncle with four wives, or reading the news and talking to the son of a jailed Zimbabwean opposition leader.

Past students in the program told me to ignore warnings by study abroad departments of the supposed difficulty of adjusting to a system in which at least half of your grade is derived from a final exam. Since I haven’t taken exams yet, any speculation on my part is premature. I can say that so far classes don’t require nearly as much reading or homework as I had at Wash. U. “What’s this?” asked one professor, fresh from seven years of school at UCT, when he saw a couple students taking notes during a tutorial.  “Things must have changed,” he reasoned.

The grading system is structured so that very few students achieve marks above a 75 and American colleges respond accordingly, often by giving credit for a passing grade but not counting it in GPA calculations. In other words, when faced with a choice between, say, going to a $7 surf lesson, volunteering with two year old TB patients, throwing down at a club on top of a skyscraper for less than $10, or studying, the latter sometimes loses out.

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