Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

SITUATED against the backdrop of Table Mountain, the University of Cape Town (UCT) casts a long shadow over the South African academic landscape.

The oldest university in South Africa, established in 1829, it is rated highest in terms of international rankings, and is the only African university in the top 200 universities in the world.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2011, the university had 379 rated researchers; 29 research chairs; received R224m in National Research Foundation funding; R135m in postgraduate funding; and had research contracts worth more than R722m. Last year, the university could boast 32 A-rated researchers. No other university in the country comes close to these numbers.

Its gravitas attracts some of the best academics in the country and the world, and the staff Business Day spoke to enjoy where they work and the opportunities UCT has offered them.

Prof Alison Lewis, director of the crystallisation and precipitation unit in the department of chemical engineering, says: "I always wonder why people don’t want my job. I’m allowed to be creative and innovative and have the money … (UCT) encourages innovation. If you go out with a mission, they will help you."

Centre for Research in Computational and Applied Mechanics director Daya Reddy echoes Prof Lewis’ sentiments: "I’ve been here 33 years, and it is a superb research environment. There is the freedom to explore."

JP Franzidis, minerals to metals research chair, says: "I’ve been here 32 years, and seen a lot of how it works, and it’s pretty impressive. They get very good value out of the people."

Interestingly, UCT is one of the few universities in the country that does not pass its publishing incentives on to researchers.

"At UCT, academics do not get a cent of the publication incentive. The only incentive is acknowledgement in their performance review and promotion," says Piet Barnard, director of research contracts and intellectual property services.

Ed Rybicki, a professor in the molecular and cell biology department, says the problem with incentives is that researchers produce a greater number of papers of lower quality. "UCT takes the view you’ll be promoting bad research," he says.

But the lack of financial incentive does not seem to have damaged the university’s output: in 2011 it produced more than 1,250 research units.

There is no doubt UCT’s reputation enables it to leverage funding and create opportunities for its academics. This reputation coupled with the excellence of its academic staff attracts many postgraduate students. Of the university’s roughly 25,000 students, 30% are postgraduates.

While postgraduate students are undeniably nurtured by UCT, they do feel the drawbacks of being part of such a large institution.

UCT employs more than 5,000 staff members, more than half of which are administrative staff. So, UCT is also a large bureaucracy.

But, unlike some universities, which are weighed down by their bureaucracies, UCT functions like a large, well-oiled machine.

But leviathan machines, because of their size, take time to get things done and to change direction. A minor example is if you need to park at UCT, you must organise with the person you are visiting to contact the parking office to get a parking permit — otherwise you will have to pay to park there.

A number of the research centres Business Day visited had their own administrative person, or shared one between centres to streamline their operations.

When asked to compare UCT to other South African universities, one senior, respected academic, who asked not to be named, said: "Stellenbosch (University) is doing a serious charge. They are agile. UCT tends to be reactive (because we think) ‘we’re good, we’re the best’.

"There is strategic thinking, but it isn’t as urgent as Stellenbosch or (the University of Johannesburg)."

However, the overwhelming impression of UCT is that it is a world-class institution, which does excellent research, is able to leverage industry funding for its projects, and can attract talented postgraduates and postdoctoral students from all over the world.