In the past five years the University of the Western Cape has become the South African research leader in physics, molecular biology and biochemistry. “With endowments of only R25-million [and] with respect to research impact between 2005 and 2010, the University of the Western Cape now leads the country’s 23 universities in the fields of physics, molecular biology and biochemistry and comes in a strong second in computer science,” said vice-chancellor Brian O’Connell, citing information presented by the National Research Foundation.
The historically disadvantaged university, which “had come from bankruptcy on all levels just over a decade ago”, O’Connell said, also received seven research chairs, the highest number for any one institution, in the foundation’s allocations three weeks ago.
He was speaking at a public lecture given two weeks ago by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, titled “Britain and South Africa: A 21st-Century Relationship”.
The chairperson of the university’s physics department, Reginald Madjoe, told the Mail & Guardian that the department was “extremely proud” of its achievement.
“The dedication of our staff is the key and most of the recognition goes to our committed teaching staff who developed the postgraduate students from first year, normally with below-average matric grades, our researchers who emphasise quality and impact and not just quantity and our support structures of the university and the National Research Foundation,” he said.
Reasons for success
He attributed the department’s success to effective teamwork, strategic and active partnerships with major national role players, the acquisition of unique scientific equipment and a focus on human capital development.
University spokesperson Luthando Tyhalibongo said a National Research Foundation analysis of all higher education institutions last year evaluated research data on citations, output and impact using the United States-based Thomson Reuters research evaluation tool InCites.
“InCites evaluations provide data to analyse institutional research performance to assess influence and impact nationally and globally,” Tyhalibongo said.
Thabiso Nkone, spokesperson for the foundation, said research impact was measured using various indicators, “including the number of citations per article and the percentage of documents cited relative to a subject area”.
Speaking before Hague’s lecture, O’Connell said South Africa’s challenge was to achieve equity and that this could not be done by redistributing the total amount of resources, owned by 15% of the population, to all South Africans.
“The total amount available was — and is — not enough,” he said.
“Take the analogy of the 15% having Nike trainers. The rest have flip-flops. If we carved up the Nikes and shared them among all, we’d all end up with flip-flops with maybe a flower decoration. It is just not good enough.”
The answer, he said, was to direct the resources, including the “key” resource of education, to the underclass so that they could “realise their potential and create the wealth that is needed for sustainability”.
He said the university “came from nothing” and had now received the highest number of research chairs allocated this year. It should be a metaphor for the rest of South Africa and an “inspiration” for communities to take charge of their own advancement.