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Demography at the University of Cape Town


The demography teaching programme at UCT was established in 2000 with funding from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. In its early years, demography teaching took place within the structure of the Master's programme in the School of Economics, and was taught by a single demographer.

A full Master's programme in demography was launched in 2003 and the first doctoral students enrolled in 2004. A variety of courses and programmes are now offered  to postgraduate students at the university, including two distinct Master's degrees as well as doctoral studies, are now available

From its initial small beginnings, the teaching complement on the programme has expanded to three demographers, all of whom are located within the Centre for Actuarial Research.

Demographic teaching, training and research

The study of demography has long been under-researched at Southern African universities. In South Africa this is largely a consequence of apartheid policies that politicised the use of demographic data, and afforded great secrecy and security to the data and to analyses based on them. In other Southern African countries, resource shortages and poor data quality have limited the useful purposes to which routinely collected demographic data could be put.

Demographic data, models and analyses have, and will continue to, play a key role in the reconstruction and development of Southern Africa. Knowledge of future population trends is essential for infrastructural investment and planning. The spread and epidemiology of the HIV/AIDS epidemic further emphasises the importance of demographic research. In South Africa, this has been acknowledged, both by government and its research agencies (demography is one of the scarce skills supported by a current NRF funding initiative), as well as by overseas agencies and funders.

In this regard, UCT has been fortunate to be the recipient of three consecutive tranches of funding (the third running from mid-2004 for three years) from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation to develop demographic training and research.

Why the need to teach demography, and why at UCT?

A recent study on the need and sustainability of training in demography and population studies in Southern and Eastern Africa conducted by leading demographers for the Population Council makes specific reference to the need for a centre of excellence in demography to be fostered and sustained in the region. The demography programme at UCT aims to be one such centre, based on our assessment of the state of Southern African demography.

First, the demographic data collected in Southern and Eastern Africa are seldom of a standard sufficient to allow their use without substantial prior investigation, analysis and correction. There is little prospect of this situation changing to any significant degree in coming years. The necessary investigations, analyses and corrections require trained and competent demographers.

Second, the establishment of a centre of excellence with researchers developing the technical mathematical and statistical skills required of students to perform these investigations will be a resource for the entire region, as there is currently no obvious centre of excellence in demography in Southern Africa where students can be trained in demographic techniques.

Third, it is the strongly held view of the proponents of the masters programme that South Africas (as well as that of the region as a whole) current reliance on training its demographers overseas is neither affordable nor sustainable in the long term. Historically, Southern African demographers have been trained at the premier demographic research institutions in the UK or the US. A changing ideological focus after the 1994 Cairo Conference, together with the implementation of high-quality data collection systems in developed countries has reduced the need for the kind of demographic techniques and analyses that are still so crucial in developing countries. Since the major focus of these institutions is to train demographers with research interests appropriate to the needs of the countries where the institutions are located, almost all demoagraphic institutions in the developed world have moved away from the teaching of formal demography. This, together with the huge cost of overseas postgraduate education, is making overseas training of professional African demographers an increasingly difficult task.

As a direct consequence of the above, there is a serious shortage of competent professional demographers in South Africa and in Africa more broadly. In addition, both the country and region as a whole are short of professional demographers with sufficient critical ability to appraise the work of their peers, especially those responsible for the production of official statistics and census results. 

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