History

​​The University of the Western Cape is well-known for its struggle against apartheid and its continued fight against oppression, discrimination and disadvantage in modern day South Africa. Among academic institutions it has been at the forefront of South Africa's historic transformation, playing a leading and unique academic role in helping to build an equitable and dynamic nation. UWC's key concerns with access, equity and quality in higher education arise from extensive practical engagement in helping the historically marginalised participate fully in the South African society.

In 1959, Parliament adopted legislation establishing the University College of the Western Cape as a constituent college of the University of South Africa for people classified as "Coloured". The first group of 166 students enrolled in 1960. They were offered limited training for lower to middle-level positions in schools, the civil service and other institutions designed to serve a separated Coloured community. In 1970, the institution gained university status and was able to award its own degrees and diplomas.

Protest action by students and black academic staff led to the appointment, in 1975, of the first black Rector. The new, freer climate under the leadership of Professor Richard E (Dick) van der Ross was amenable to intellectual debate and internationally respected scholarship.

In its mission statement of 1982, UWC Objectives, the university formally rejected the apartheid ideology on which it was established, adopting a declaration of nonracialism and "a firm commitment to the development of the Third World communities in South Africa." In 1983, through the University of the Western Cape Act of 1983, the university finally gained its autonomy on the same terms as the established "white" institutions.

The term of Professor Jakes Gerwel, who took office as Rector in 1987, saw an unambiguous alignment with the mass democratic movement and a new edge to the academic project. Under the banner of "an intellectual home of the left", space was created for curriculum renewal, innovative research and outreach projects. Important social and policy issues, which had been swept under the carpet by the government of the day, thus received attention.

The university also formalised its "open" admissions policy, providing access to a growing number of African students, and paving the way for rapid growth. Despite severe constraints, students from disadvantaged communities graduated in increasing numbers, equipped to make a professional contribution to the new South Africa. President Nelson Mandela lauded UWC for having transformed itself "from an apartheid ethnic institution to a proud national asset."

The 1990s were characterised by a sense of rich achievement. UWC played an important role in the emergence of the new democratic order. It provided opportunities for many people to prepare for a wide spectrum of higher-level careers and contributed significantly to policy research and formulation. UWC takes pride in the fact that so many of its senior academics and alumni found themselves in public office at all levels, a number in the national cabinet. The decade was also marked by a strong orientation to the future. There was a stronger focus on teaching and learning excellence. UWC's research productivity now places it in the upper group of universities and technikons in the country. A thorough review of structures and academic programmes at the institution was implemented in the 1990s. This led to decisions on the consolidation of efforts, to a more interdisciplinary thrust, and to the development of programmes which offer better access to the job market and show a more direct responsiveness to issues of national importance. In the words of Professor Cecil Abrahams, Vice-Chancellor from 1995, UWC is committed to being "a Place of Quality, a Place to Grow."

Towards the end of 2001, former UWC rector, Professor Brian O'Connell assumed the Vice-Chancellorship amidst a plethora of processes to restructure the higher education system in South Africa. In 2002, the Minister of National Education mapped the future higher education landscape. One of the outcomes of the restructuring process was that UWC would retain its status as an autonomous institution.

Under the visionary leadership of its current Rector, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, the university is now, more than ever, challenged to demonstrate that it is capable of competing with the best and of playing a prominent role in the intellectual, social and economic life of the nation.

One of UWC's primary concerns for the future is to use its mandate to create and maintain a sense of hope for the nation whilst helping to build an equitable and dynamic society.

A second concern is with its role in the knowledge economy. It remains committed to creating, preserving and disseminating knowledge that is dynamic and relevant to the challenges of a modern world and a transforming society. A third concern, which is inseparable from the notions of hope and knowledge, is a concern with agency - the will and the ability to act, to be an agent of change.

A dynamic future beckons as UWC strives to remain a vibrant institution of high repute, in pursuit of excellence in teaching, learning and research. UWC believes that its strength will come from its ability to provide a nurturing space for its staff and students to grow in hope and to create and share knowledge to inform agency.

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2020 amid a crippling pandemic.

However, COVID-19 served as a catalyst for expanded innovative thinking at the University. One milestone includes UWC scientists helping to decode the genome of COVID-19 to facilitate curbing its spread and to contribute towards finding a vaccine.

Researchers examined the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown on South African society, from big business to spaza shops. UWC academics have worked to keep the public informed of the latest developments in the battle against Covid-19.

The University pioneered a virtual graduation ceremony during lockdown so that graduates could celebrate their hard work and achievements. Additionally, its #NoStudentWillBeLeftBehind appeal addressed the need of thousands of students who did not have the resources necessary for flexi-learning. Visit: http://60.uwc.ac.za/