Research is a core mission of the University of Johannesburg. In my inaugural address of September 2006, I challenged the University to draw upon its varied and often remarkable intellectual achievements, and to double research output within a decade. This would position it among the top eight institutions in the country. At the time this seemed visionary, even unrealistic. We were a new institution, formed from very different components. However, we are confident that we are reaching our goal.
Why, though, do we put such emphasis on research? How have we achieved so much in such a relatively short time? How will we build on these years of achievement?
It would have been easy for UJ, in its new role as a comprehensive institution, to focus on undergraduate and diploma teaching and to leave research unplanned for; an activity for those who cared to so involve themselves, to be undertaken after core teaching duties. We did not follow this route. We valued the expertise and scholarship that UJ had inherited, and believed strongly that we were obliged to enable the whole university community to match itself against the highest intellectual standards, as epitomised in research. Our undergraduates and diplomates, about one-third of them from families who had not previously been to university, deserved the stimulation of an institution where their teachers were actively engaged on the frontiers of their disciplines; and our academics deserved the excitement, prestige and rewards of grappling with new ideas and techniques. We believe this approach has been vindicated.
Our strategy has been multifaceted. We took a calculated risk and assigned substantial resources to research; internal funding grew from R19 million in 2006 to about R60 million in 2010, with an additional R39 million being spent in supporting the University’s research centres over a three- year period. We emphasised our urban identity and the research opportunities of the great city of Johannesburg. We reorganised our research administration and policy framework, bringing in proven academic and administrative research managers. We appointed research professors, invested in postgraduate and research centres and in information-management systems, and demonstrated to faculty that our commitment to research was tangible, not rhetorical. The Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Research and Innovation, introduced in 2007, recognise and reward senior researchers, an increasing number of whom are NRF-rated. Early-stage researchers are incentivised and productive academics are encouraged, through prestige and through research finance, at whatever point they are in their careers. We have energetically promoted the acquisition of higher academic qualifications and involvement in research at all of the University’s campuses. As befits our environment, we are promoting technological research and innovation, and are engaged in ‘public scholarship’: vigorous research-informed debate on the issues of the day through lectures and dedicated centres.
We are already close to achieving our research aims for the decade to 2015. Between 2005 and 2009, the accredited research output grew by over 43%, from 325 to 467 units with 60% of accredited research outputs being published in international journals. We are thus on course to achieve the 2015 institutional target of 600 units. The number of NRF-rated researchers has significantly increased from the low 60s to 87, and the University now has five A-rated researchers. More academic staff members are publishing, and it is pleasing that staff from the technological component of the University are actively participating, with four out of the ten top contributors to accredited research outputs in 2009 coming from this environment.
Our target for 2020 is one of consolidation, with a further 20% growth in our research. This should position UJ at the upper end of universities with middle-level research productivity, immediately below the top five institutions all of which, unlike UJ, have medical faculties with high publication rates. We aim by 2020 to become the country’s leading innovator in the field of scientifically-informed technology: we already have world-class capacity in areas such as radiography and mining engineering and we will move forward from these secure bridgeheads. We are determined not to be mesmerised by existing patterns of enrolment, and will work towards giving technology and technological research the best possible students, faculty and facilities.
Finally, we will do all of this as an active participant in the international research community. We already have strong links with Europe, especially Holland and Germany, and we are building partnerships with institutions in China, Brazil, India and the United States. As we have done domestically, such as with Rhodes University and the University of the Witwatersrand, we are moving beyond the individual to systemic research collaborations. The highly successful collaboration at the UJ Soweto Campus between UJ and Harvard University, which has seen us create the Education Leadership Institute, indicates the exhilarating possibilities.
Professor Ihron Rensburg