You can change your world with a university degree

Karen van Heerden

If we had to define young people’s feelings about South Africa in just one word, I think that word would be “change”: economic change, cultural change, political and social change. Recent protests in South Africa (but also in many other countries) have all been about the call for change.

Changing your world is a very good reason for working towards a university degree. It provides the knowledge and skills to better understand the problems we want to solve, and to seek solutions. We know that food insecurity, for instance, affects many South Africans. But how prevalent is it in our poorer communities? What are its causes and effects? Five UCT students who are studying for their medical degrees recently conducted a study in Bonteheuwel and Langa in the Western Cape, to better understand the relationship between food insecurity and health.

Of the 121 attendees at a public health clinic that they surveyed, 81.82% were found to be food insecure. A further 53.71% were found to be severely food insecure, meaning that they go a whole day and night without food, because they don’t have the resources. Some participants indicated that this happened more than 10 times in one month.

These five medical students now have first-hand experience of the need for health solutions that go beyond just prescribing medication. They hope that their findings might help motivate corporates or other organisations to assist these communities with long-term solutions. You can read more about the study on

If you are getting good marks in high school and are concerned about social justice, I hope you are thinking about applying for university. Here are some tips on how to go about it.

1. Apply to more than one university. South Africa’s top institutions all receive more applications than they can accept and applicants compete for the available places. So it is a good idea to apply to several universities that offer the kind of degree you want to earn.

2. Ask questions about the university and the degree programmes on offer. Every institution offers at least one Open Day each year. (UCT’s is on 22 April.) You can also call the admissions office to chat to a recruitment counsellor or go on a tour of campus. Go online to read the admissions handbook and then discuss the parts that are still unclear to you. Faculty advisors can explain the different degree programmes and what kind of scores they require.

3. Pay attention to deadlines. UCT will accept undergraduate applications until 30 September 2017 for the 2018 academic year.  We do not accept late applications. Other universities may have different deadlines or they may accept last-minute or walk-in applications.

4. Find out what fees you will be charged. Each university has its own fee structure. Some charge a registration fee; others, like UCT, do not. Some universities charge additional fees above and beyond tuition, such as transport or fieldwork costs, internet, wi-fi or library access, notes levies, laboratory fees, PC lab access fees and instrument costs. UCT does not. Our tuition fees pay for everything, including an excellent library service, accident insurance and use of the university transport service.

5. Find out if you qualify for financial assistance. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) provides funding for students at all universities whose annual household income is less than R230 000. In 2016 UCT received around R160 million from NSFAS to support students requiring financial aid. UCT also provides GAP funding for students whose household income is between R230 001 and R600 000. And UCT offers a Sibling Rebate Bursary to families whose gross household income is under R750 000 with two or more siblings in full-time undergraduate study at UCT.

Students whose gross family household income is above R750 000 may also apply for special consideration. In 2016 UCT committed R126 million of its own funds to supporting undergraduate students in financial need. Each university has its own way of helping those who need financial assistance.

6. Find out if on-campus housing is available. This usually requires a separate application process. University housing tends to be limited, so you may need to be prepared to seek affordable housing off campus. Universities may assist with this as well – UCT has an Off Campus Student Accommodation Service office. 

7. Find out how the university’s admission policy can help you. Every university has its own admission policy. UCT seeks out school leavers with high academic scores from across South Africa. Our admission policy balances the race targets that we’ve had for a long time with redress for socio-economic disadvantage. So, for instance, applicants from families that depend on social grants and those coming from low-quintile schools all get extra admissions points.

8. Check out the quality of the university’s researchers. Global university ranking systems help identify the world’s strongest universities in terms of different criteria, such as research, teaching and the quality of their degree programmes. UCT has been named Africa’s leading university by the most important world university rankings, but other South African universities also feature in these rankings.

In addition, the National Research Foundation (NRF) assigns rankings to individual researchers. UCT currently has the highest number of NRF-rated researchers in South Africa at 514. We also have a high number of A-rated researchers (those who are regarded as world leaders in their field) at 40. UCT’s achievements in research directly benefit students, who learn from the people who are making an impact in their field of study. 

9. Find out how the university rewards good teaching. Teaching is a high priority even at research-based institutions, because we are training up future researchers as well as future leaders in law, business, health sciences, technology and other fields. Each year UCT students nominate the instructors they think should receive the Distinguished Teacher Award – awarded to acknowledge the primary place of teaching and learning at the university, based on a range of rigorous criteria. 

10. Consider student life on campus. It’s not only about studying – some of the most import university experiences happen outside the classroom. So consider the range of opportunities available to students: exchange programmes that allow you to travel or meet foreign students on your own campus; leadership opportunities in the Student Representative Council or student faculty councils, Student Parliament or student societies.

UCT has 100+ student societies and organisations: some focus on academic interests, others on religions or philosophies, national/cultural interests, politics, special interests, sports, culture and civil society issues. They are a good way to relax, meet people, and widen your own outlook beyond the classroom.

- Karen van Heerden is deputy registrar of the University of Cape Town.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Voting Booth
Many companies are asking employees to return to office full time after years of remote/hybrid settings. What are your thoughts?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
I can't wait to be back!
19% - 42 votes
No thanks, remote work is the future
20% - 44 votes
Hybrid is the best option to keep everyone happy
61% - 132 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.