Wits – a gateway for intellectual engagement and research excellence in Africa

Nhlanhla Cele

Director of Strategic planning

The University of the Witwatersrand is globally vaunted for its academic and research excellence, which has grown from strength to strength since it acquired its full status as a university in 1922. The reputation and recognition of Wits as a world-class university is evident in its ranking in the past five years as one of the two leading universities in the country and on the continent. This legacy of excellence has to be nurtured, sustained and eventually surpassed in the next 12 years. Wits aspires to be a leading research-intensive university, firmly embedded in the Top 100 universities in the world by 2022.  The University has developed a 12-year strategic framework as a roadmap to achieve this vision.

The Vision 2022 Strategic Framework articulates a vision that elevates Wits’s position as one of the internationally leading research-intensive universities and a gateway to knowledge and understanding in Africa. It provides the overarching framework for more detailed plans based on current imperatives , and will shape strategic thinking during the respective planning cycles. There are four three-year strategic plans built into the Vision 2022 Strategic Framework, the first being the Wits 2013 Strategy.

Why the Top 100 goal? Wits is pursuing this goal for a number of reasons. First, world-class(ness) is embedded in the standards and reputation that Wits has espoused since 1922 – a reputation of intellectual superiority and academic excellence. Secondly, Wits has played and continues to play a leading role in producing the country’s intellectual capital (high-level scarce skills, research and knowledge transfer). For us to continue on this path we need to embrace global competitiveness. And thirdly, Wits provides intellectual capital for the global village – generating research with global impact and producing graduates who are global citizens. So there is no question that we have to behave like other leading universities in the world. I am happy that we cannot talk about white and black universities in this country any more; identities are centred instead on institutional types such as universities of technology, comprehensive universities and traditional universities. Traditional universities also need to be differentiated by deliberately recognising a league of research-intensive universities in this country. Wits continues to play a significant role in the domains of intellectual capital and transformation. The meritocratic cosmopolitan nature of the University is reflected in the proportion of international students who choose to study here – especially at postgraduate level. We are also addressing transformation in terms of who participates in our educational and research arrangements – in the 29 000 student headcount of 2011 enrolment, Wits has significantly transformed its student gender and racial profile – black students constituted 73,5%, and female students 53,5%, while the targeted 48% of total enrolments in the science, engineering and technology fields of study has been achieved. No South African universities perceived to be ahead of us can show evidence of this commitment to investing resources in ensuring that transformation becomes part of institutional excellence. Unlike other universities, Wits has opted not to select-out students, but select-in those who stand to benefit from our arrangements if we invest sufficient energy in developing them. Wits is currently working hard on shifting the transformation conversation from demographics to academic performance. Across many disciplines, Wits is taking a lead in producing abstract and applied research; making interdisciplinary research arrangements; generating groundbreaking research; and attracting world-leading scholars, including distinguished visiting scholars.

All universities contribute to research output in South Africa. However, if the quality, shape of knowledge production and international visibility of research output is anything to go by, there are only two universities that dominate; the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Wits. It is precisely for that reason that these universities continue to be ranked as the best universities in Africa.  In the period 2005 – 2007, the field distribution of article output in ISI journals was as follows; Natural and Agricultural Sciences 53%, Health Sciences 25%, Engineering and Applied Technologies 10% and the remaining was shared between Humanities and Social Sciences.  Institutions that took the lead in this output were UCT, Wits and the University of Pretoria.. If general research output becomes the focus of the conversation, other universities take the lead, given their distinct capacity to produce more publications in additional areas such as theology, law and other disciplines and fields that do not receive emphasis at Wits, besides law.  Wits emphasises science, engineering and technology ?(SET) areas as a deliberate strategy to contribute to the national and global intellectual capital,while continuing to produce groundbreaking research in the Humanities and Social Sciences at a reasonable level. Our capacity to produce research should be judged in terms of our areas of focus and the global impact of that research – not in terms of output in areas such as theology, in which we have decided not to participate.

Wits graduates can contribute to the achievement of Vision 2022 in various ways by:

  • Renewing their commitment to Wits as Alumni
  • Becoming ambassadors of the University
  • Supporting capacity development initiatives at Wits at undergraduate, postgraduate and research levels
  • Participating in the intellectual project of the University
  • Mentoring young talent and Wits graduates
  • Contributing resources in terms of student scholarships and investment in research projects
  • Supporting publicengagement initiatives that involve Wits
  • Participating in our talent management strategy by providing expertise in your areas of excellence

Wits has chosen a path towards being a world-class university that is an embodiment of national strength and competitiveness in a knowledge society and knowledge economy, where top-end intellectual capital is a deeply held article of global strength, international visibility and the sustainability of economic and social development programmes. World-class universities are the epitome of the complexity and sophistication of national research and innovation systems, and every country that sets its growth path and development agenda on knowledge leadership needs such institutions. While the targets set in Vision 2022 and the Wits 2013 Strategy may seem ambitious, they can be achieved with the full support of the University community and the friends of Wits.  Achieving this goal is not only good for Wits, but for the nation as well.  Every country with high-quality universities earns the respect of the world.