Eyeing the Oxbridge league

The year 2008 marks 100 years of the pursuit of academic excellence for the University of Pretoria, a century in the service of knowledge.

Let us reflect against the backdrop of the expectations that were created by General Jan Smuts in 1910 when he said the “University of Pretoria must become for this country what Oxford is for England”.

In its centenary year, the University of Pretoria is the country’s leading research university in terms of the number of research outputs produced annually. For the past decade the university has produced more research outputs every year than any other institution of higher learning in the country, as measured by the Department of Education’s accreditation benchmark. It needs to be emphasised that inherent in the term “research university” is the understanding that teaching and learning on the undergraduate as well as postgraduate levels must be outstanding.

The university is also establishing itself increasingly as a university of choice for new first-year students. More or less a quarter of all matriculants who pass with university exemption nationally apply for entry to the University of Pretoria, and more than 30% of those with six distinctions or more enrol at the university.

In 2007 38 635 contact students were enrolled at the university, of whom 15 568 (40%) were black. The majority of the contact students were females. The number of contact students include more than 2 400 international students. They represent all regions of the world, with a significant number coming from Africa. The university also enrolled 14 433 distance education students in 2007, of whom 99% were black. Most of these students were enrolled in the faculty of education. The total student complement (contact and distance education) in 2007 was 53 063, of which 29 856 were black (56%).

During its 100 years of existence, the University of Pretoria has delivered more than 150 000 alumni. It is today the largest single producer of university graduates in the country. In 2007, more than 11 500 students received degree and diploma qualifications from the university, and more than 20 000 people attended the university’s comprehensive offering of continuing education courses. Keeping in mind that there are 23 institutions of higher learning in South Africa, it is interesting to note that in 2006 the University of Pretoria produced 18% of all three-year bachelor degrees, 15% of all professional four-year bachelor degrees and 17% of all master’s degrees.

It is also noteworthy that the University of Pretoria is the largest single supplier of doctoral graduates in the country. In 2006, 148 doctoral degrees were conferred by the university, with 13,5% of the country’s doctoral candidates enrolled at the university. Furthermore, the university produced 27% of all engineers (with BEng degrees), 13% of all healthcare professionals, 18% of all natural scientists and 100% of the veterinarians in 2006.

The university’s performance and achievements in research (including collaboration with the private sector and industry as well as its interaction with science councils, foundations and non-governmental organisations, locally and internationally), the large number of graduates that it produces (particularly doctoral and other postgraduate students) as well as scientists and engineers and its focus on innovation, contri-bute directly towards enhancing the nation’s competitiveness

The university has also embarked on a path of transformation. The transformation process is a broad one and encompasses changes in the demographics of students and staff, curriculum reform, focus of research initiatives, community engagement programmes, language issues and particularly the organisational culture. Although much progress has been made, the university knows that transformation is an ongoing process and that there remains a distance to be travelled on this path.

We believe diversity, including diversity of students and staff, contributes towards the strength of the university. The change of government in 1994 opened the way for the University of Pretoria to transform itself into a South African university where all South Africans are welcome and can make a contribution. This spirit is captured in the university’s vision: “The university strives to be the intellectual home for the rich diversity of South African academic talent”.

In order to be such a home, it must actively eradicate barriers to entry that do not compromise its academic standards. Such barriers include financial barriers, language barriers and aspects of organisational culture. In order to help overcome financial barriers in 2008, students of the university will have access to more than R300-million in financial aid, representing more than 40% of the university’s revenue from tuition fees. In order to ensure that language is also not a barrier to entry, the university changed its language policy during the 1990s to the effect that tuition is offered in both Afrikaans and English. Tuition offerings in English opened the university to many South Africans, as well as international students, who would not otherwise be able to attend. In 2007, Sepedi was phased in as a language of communication. This signifies the university’s appreciation of the strengths of diversity, particularly as it is manifested in multilingualism.

Although the University of Pretoria has performed exceptionally in a number of areas, it is also true that there are areas the university can and must improve.

It is essential that increased attention must now be paid to bring about significant academic renewal in the university, with a major focus on eliminating the barriers that are brought about by silos and a silo mentality. We must apply our minds to engage the academic engine of the university to make the major contributions in bringing about the changes that are required.

The entire “UP way” of doing things must be interrogated. It is the ultimate paradigm shift. In innovation parlance, the time has come for radical innovations with regard to processes and products, as well as with regard to organisational positioning and culture. Incremental innovations alone will not suffice, and any form of mediocrity and complacency cannot be tolerated. Instead we must focus on quality and the pursuit of excellence.

We, as the centenary generation, have the responsibility to ensure the University of Pretoria not only meets the great expectations that were created 100 years ago, but exceeds them.

Not only must the University of Pretoria “be for this country what Oxford is for England”, we must ensure that the university is set on a sustainable path towards being and remaining one of South Africa’s world class universities. It must be a “university for the future”, the trustee of a quality future for all South Africans. It must be a university that does not reactively look on as the world goes by, but instead proactively participates in creating a better future for all. That is the challenge that we, the centenary generation, face at the dawn of the new century.

Professor Calie Pistorius is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pretoria. This is an edited version of an article for Tukkie, the UP’s alumni magazine

A Brief history of tukkies

The establishment of the University of Pretoria was in large part a result of the vision and actions of General Jan Smuts. During the period just before the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910, Smuts was the colonial secretary and minister of education in the Transvaal. As such he took very active steps to establish an institution which was later to become the University of Pretoria.

The university opened its doors on February 10 1908 as the Transvaal University College in the house known as Kya Rosa, located at 270 Skinner Street. Four professors taught 32 students in arts and sciences. These premises soon proved to be too small, and a new campus was subsequently constructed “on the site near Brooklyn”. It was described by Smuts as one that would be “… the finest in South Africa”.

The laying of the cornerstone of the main building on August 3 1910 was a grand affair. The words spoken by General Smuts on that day hold a particular significance for the university, especially as it now celebrates its centenary. He noted that “Maybe the day will come when this TUC will be for this country what Oxford is for England, maybe the grass will have to grow on the field for another 100 years before it happens, but a great start has been made”.

The young university grew fast, both in size and stature. The first registrar was appointed in 1916, when the administration became too much for the secretary and typist. In 1917 the senate of the university was seriously considering whether the time had not come to appoint a principal, when Professor AC Paterson resigned his post as registrar. He noted that the workload of the registrar had increased to the point where he could no longer be the part-time registrar and professor of Latin at the same time. He was duly appointed as the first principal on October 1 1918. In 1920 he threatened to resign again, noting that the workload of the principal had increased to the point where he could no longer be part-time principal and professor of Latin. He was subsequently relieved of his teaching duties to focus on his task as principal.

In 1930 a proclamation was issued, and the Private Act on the University of Pretoria (Act No 13 of 1930) renamed the “Transvaal University College, Pretoria”, the “University of Pretoria”. In 1932, the university changed its language policy to offer tuition primarily in Afrikaans.

New faculties were added in the period 1917 to 1955. A major restructuring occurred in 2000, when a number of faculties were consolidated. Currently the university’s academic endeavours are structured in nine faculties and a business school.

In all, the university’s estates span more than 1 120 hectares, on which are located more than 625 buildings. In addition to the original main campus in Hatfield (actually Hillcrest), the university operates on five other academic campuses.

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