As we near the end of 2020, I am hopeful we will be able to draw on the experiences and learnings of the past year with renewed energy to focus on our fundamental objectives to serve students through education, preserve academic integrity and maintain our viability. The turn of events of 2020 has sown unprecedented social, economic and organisational disruption, the magnitude of which we have yet to comprehend fully.
On 26 October, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Mr Buti Manamela, visited UWC’s Main campus as part of a sector-wide assessment of universities’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Deputy Minister met with various stakeholders and commended the University for our wide range of mechanisms and interventions to ensure our students’ needs were accommodated as best as possible.
Allow me at the outset to express my sincere gratitude to all our colleagues at UWC for their resilience and the unwavering commitment they have shown to our students under strained circumstances. I also wish to pay homage to our students – many who have endured personal hardship and who have had to find their way through challenging and confusing times. In a country that is struggling to find its footing on a myriad of fronts, we are acutely aware that many have been directly affected by the pandemic, losing loved ones or being infected by the Coronavirus.
In particular, we wish to extend our condolences to the families of dentistry student Themba Mngomezulu, third-year law student, Darian Miguel Samuel Koopman and final-year arts student Ezile Ntanjana, who have passed away. We extend our condolences too to the loved ones of our dear colleague Mr Ameen Salie, who succumbed to COVID-19 earlier this year.
In his medium-term budget on 28 October, the Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, gave an outline of the state of the economy and announced several measures to respond to fiscal weakness and to avoid the current pandemic turning into a sovereign debt crisis. These circumstances will have a direct impact on the higher education sector and we have already seen evidence of this earlier this year when all government departments were requested to cede parts of their budgets to fund a national response to COVID-19. These and a number of other factors will undoubtedly put the University’s financial strategies to the test.
Importantly, the Department of Higher Education and Training has released its Gender Based Violence Policy Framework for the Post-School Education and Training sector, and it is intended that it will act as a guide in terms of addressing the occurrence of GBV at institutions as well as promote the establishment of awareness and support programmes. The monitoring and evaluation of the Policy Framework will be done at an institutional and national level and a comprehensive system in this regard will be adopted, along with a set of common indicators that will be developed and agreed upon between the Department and institutions.
The Student Leadership Incubator Programme saw the graduation of 24 students, and a new cohort has been recruited for the 2021 academic year. The programme is meant to enhance the participants’ understanding of relevant leadership responsibilities and expectations and is meant to strengthen the role of student leadership and deepen democratic principles while inculcating the value of servant leadership.
Given the changed environment due to the pandemic with the playing of sport being suspended and the fact that the University celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, the annual awards deviated from its normal format of honouring the students who excelled in various sporting disciplines. Instead, the occasion was used to honour the achievements of 60 current and former athletes, coaches, administrators and scientists. In a virtual ceremony, luminaries such as the late Chester Williams, Dr Danny Jordaan, Tobie Titus, Herschel Jantjies and Dr Fred Robertson were celebrated. Under the level 1 lockdown guidelines, play will be allowed and most UWC teams have started training while using off-campus facilities.
Under the lockdown level 1, the Student Development and Support’s ResLife division continues monitoring the occupancy levels in our various residences to ensure that the limited number of students are adhering to health and safety protocols and that the environment is conducive to minimising the spread of the coronavirus.
Even though South Africa has moved to Level 1 COVID-19 restrictions, we remain cautious about returning our staff and students to campus. This continues to necessitate us maintaining the support systems that we have established since the March lockdown started, and this comes with its own set of challenges.
With the lockdown, the use of technologies for teaching and learning has increased rapidly at UWC. The Centre for Innovative Education and Communication Technologies (CIECT) focuses on a Digital Academic Literacy (DAL) Programme, where on the one hand staff and students are able to easily navigate and interact within online platforms; and on the other hand, many students still require basic computer literacy skills. A number of 3 660 students were enrolled and trained in the programme between February and October 2020. CIECT has recorded that 95% of academics have adopted online practices while 1 384 modules have been created within the institutional Learning Management System, iKamva (Sakai platform), for the academic year 2020 across all faculties. As we continue engaging with the academic project amid the pandemic, more departments have transitioned their students back onto the clinical platform too.
Despite the disruption COVID-19 has brought, I am pleased that UWC continued to excel in the area of research and innovation. Highlights for 2020 included:
SARChI Chair in Nuclear Physics, Professor Smarajit Triambak and Professor Robbie Lindsay are Principal Investigators in an international tonne-scale deep-underground next-generation neutrinoless double beta experiment called nEXO. UWC joins other participating institutes including Stanford University, CalTech, Yale University, McGill University, Duke University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Presently, UWC is the only institution from Africa and the Southern Hemisphere to be part of the nEXO experiment and our inclusion in the experiment was approved with 'significant enthusiasm' from the nEXO Collaboration Board, which is represented by nearly 40 institutions worldwide. The experiment aims to measure the neutrinoless double beta decay, which is one of the holy grails of particle physics. If observed, it could answer fundamental questions such as, "Why is there no antimatter and how did it all disappear from the Universe?". Significant UWC postgraduate student participation in the nEXO project is expected.
The South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) was chosen by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as one of three reference laboratories in the WHO network responsible for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. This recent development aligns with SANBI’s Pan-African strategy and their determination to share resources and expertise across the continent. The other centres are the Kwazulu-Natal Innovation and Sequencing Platform and The African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) in Nigeria.
The ongoing development of Data Science capacity and delivery in the Department of Statistics and Population Studies received a major boost with the announcement of an R11 million investment over three years in the Department’s Masters programme in Statistical Science (Data Science) by Imvelo Ventures. Imvelo Ventures is a venture capital investment company founded by Capitec Bank and Empowerment Capital Investment partners and the funding will support the sundry costs associated with the programme and student bursaries for the industry directed Data Science programmes.
Prof Christopher Arendse, Department of Physics and Astrophysics, was awarded the Fulbright South African Research Scholarship for the 2020-2021 academic year and will be hosted by the University of Missouri-Columbia (UMC) in the US. The purpose of the visit is to study the charge dynamics and crystal symmetry of lead-free hybrid perovskite thin films and nano-structures, using femto-second nonlinear optics. This information will assist in the development of low-cost, stable and efficient lead-free perovskite solar cells and thin film transistors, and several postgraduate students will participate in this study.
The Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology has been selected to develop a multimillion rand marine laboratory to explore microplastic pollution as part of a DSI/NRF Joint Marine Laboratory (JML) programme that will provide support to the ACEP Phuhlisa programme under the auspices of the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity. The JML programme will address key marine and social/economic opportunities and challenges facing South Africa, and UWC is one of four universities that will benefit from this programme.
Deputy Dean, Professor Gail Hughes, from the Department of Medical Biosciences, is serving as an epidemiology advisor to the Hospice Palliative Care Association of South Africa (HPCA), providing consultation and guidance on national prevention efforts for associations and staff in more than 100 organisations in South Africa. She is also serving as epidemiology advisor/contributor to the COVID Environmental Reference Group (CERG) consortium of national researchers and scientists from SA universities and research institutions, focusing on the climate influence on the COVID-19 infection rate. Professor Hughes was invited by the University of Namibia as the only South African contributor and epidemiologist to a book project entitled “COVID-19: A Global Pandemic, a Namibian perspective”.
The Faculty of Arts and Humanities’ Prof Uma Mesthrie was appointed honorary patron of the UK-based Ameena Gafoor Institute for the Study of Indentureship and its Legacies, together with leading scholars such as Dr Patricia Rodney, Lord Bhiku Parekh, Professor David Olugusan and Professor Brij Lal. Prof Ciraj Rassool has been awarded an Open Society Foundation grant with colleagues from the United Kingdom, Ghana and Egypt for a major project on museum restitution and repatriation.
UWC is honoured to have 18 of its staff counted among the world’s most impactful researchers. Along with more than six million scientists who have published at least five papers. A list from Stanford University placed researchers from UWC among the world’s top 2% of most-cited scientists in various fields – sharing research that makes a difference. Citation metrics show how often scientists formally reference research outputs of other researchers in their own papers.
As part of the 60th anniversary celebrations and the establishment of the UWC Press, we launched a tribute volume, “From Hope to Action through Knowledge: The Renaissance of the University of the Western Cape, 2001 – 2014”, in celebration of the contributions and achievements under the leadership of my predecessor, Prof Brian O’Connell. Spanning a considerable contemporary history of the University, the 469-page book, with a host of contributors, narrates the revival of UWC from near bankruptcy to a leading research-led institution.
While we are not tied to rankings as an indicator of academic standards and quality, it remains a worthwhile measure to view our performance against that of our peers and affirm that we are on the right track. Times Higher Education (THE) released its World Subjects by Ranking 2021 on 28 October with eight subjects being ranked, as compared with last year’s five subjects, with the addition of Arts and Humanities (301-400), Psychology (501+) and Law (201+). Furthermore, we saw an improvement in our Education ranking that moved from last year’s 301-400 band to the 251-300 band.
The Best Global Universities 2021 rankings were also released, showing the top 1 500 universities worldwide with 13 indicators such as publications, books, global research reputation and conferences being used to calculate the scores. In the 2021 rankings, UWC was placed at position 729 globally, 16th in Africa and 8th in South Africa, while we gained rankings in a third subject, Clinical Medicine, as compared with last year’s rankings where only Social Science and Space Science were ranked.
On 3 December 2020, the University launched its new website. It is key in terms of interfacing with prospective and existing students, alumni, potential sponsors, and other stakeholders. One of the critical objectives is to offer an excellent user experience across desktop, tablet and mobile platforms while reflecting the standards of a modern higher education institution.
Internal communication was identified as a key concern and I am pleased that, on 16 October 2020, the phase 1 of the new Intranet Staff Portal and eDRAMS platforms were successfully launched to the UWC staff community. The Intranet and eDRAMS projects addresses critical challenges the UWC community has experienced for a number of years, such as the creation of a central repository for the storage of information, enhanced document and content management, access to pertinent HR information, improved online collaboration, communication and staff engagement, and improvement with regard to the University’s data/information security.
It gives me great pleasure too to report that the Unibell student accommodation development project is well underway. The development will provide 2 700 new student beds and is within walking distance of the Main campus, and has all the needed infrastructure and amenities for conducive living and learning. The Education Building project is also making good progress. This project entails the repurposing of existing infrastructure as well as the extension of the current buildings that form part of the Education precinct.
The disruptive impact of COVD-19 not only compounded the initial challenge of active participation in the crafting of a new Institutional Operating Plan (IOP) 2021 – 2025, but also slowed down the process significantly, demanding greater agility in terms of time frames. More importantly, the impact of the pandemic demanded greater openness to challenge long-held views about existing operating models, modes of engagement, working environments and planning assumptions. I am confident the slower pace has allowed for more deliberation to arrive at a shared understanding of value-added aspects which will eventually convey clearer signals of UWC’s vision and future intentions.
A three-part webinar series on ‘Race and Racism’ was co-convened by UWC-Ghent University and the University of Missouri. Given the importance of discussions on race, apartheid, colonialism and the legacy of monuments celebrating slavery, this webinar series tapped into the issues and emotionality experienced by the Black Lives Matter movement. The three Rectors are meeting again on 3 December to share experiences, assess and evaluate the webinar series. They will then look at shared collaboration and solidarity for deepening the partnerships.
Finally, this year has undoubtedly been one of the most challenging – not only for the University and the country, but globally. We have had to navigate our way through our lives cautiously and with a great deal of anxiety. Our students, staff and the broader UWC community have been significantly affected in ways that we are still grappling to understand, and we have attempted to provide support as broadly as possible.
I know we have endured hardship and sacrifices. We also know that we will have to proceed into 2021 with an awareness that the pandemic is not over and there are precautions that we must continue to take. We expect 2021 to bring its own challenges and we need to be prepared for whatever might come our way.
I wish to express my immense gratitude and appreciation to the University community for coming together to ensure that our academic project survives. I hope all those associated with UWC will have time to rest and rejuvenate during the festive season. Please remember to stay safe, practise social distancing, wear a mask and wash your hands and sanitise as frequently as possible.
Professor Tyrone Pretorius
Rector and Vice-Chancellor