Public universities are invited to showcase their positive impact on the South African society

Published On: 24 May 2024|

Universities South Africa (USAf) recently invited universities to submit case studies illustrating the positive outcomes of their research and academic work in society.

This initiative is led by the Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG), one of USAf’s six strategy groups mandated to advise the USAf Board on research and innovation matters in higher education. The RISG works collaboratively with stakeholders in the national system of research and innovation.

According to Professor Thoko Mayekiso (right), Chairperson of the RISG and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga, these case studies will enable USAf to highlight and celebrate the impact on society derived from research conducted at South African universities.

“Recognising that an engaged university identifies and responds to societal challenges in its context, we want to illustrate the developmental and transformative value of our universities in society,” she said, adding that this is one of the many ways “to invoke appreciation for our institutions of higher learning.”

The call to universities was distributed to universities on 29 April 2024, targeting the offices of Deputy Vice-Chancellors responsible for Research, copying Research Directors. The submission deadline is 14 June 2024.

On this project, USAf is collaborating with Professor Chris Brink, a widely recognised authority in the concept of An Engaged University. An Emeritus Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom and former Rector and Vice-Chancellor at Stellenbosch University, Professor Brink was extensively involved in the conceptualisation, in South Africa, of the National Research Foundation (NRF) Framework to Advance the Societal and Knowledge Impact of Research. For purposes of the unfolding project, the RISG adopted the research impact definition provided in that Framework.

Research Impact defined

The NRF, mandated to support, promote and advance research and human capacity development through funding and providing essential research infrastructure, defines research impact as:

“A beneficial change in society or knowledge advancement, brought about as a direct or indirect result of the NRF’s research support interventions, whether planned or unintended, immediate or longer-term.”

More on Professor Chris Brink

He is also the Convenor of the University Grants Committee (UGC) Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) that evaluates research outputs, impact and environment of universities around the world, based on discipline-specific criteria. He oversaw the RAE 2020, which found eight publicly funded universities in Hong Kong to be performing favourably among their global peers, having upped their performance ratings from the RAE 2014. Universities subjected to the RAE are bestowed quality ratings ranging from unclassified, 1-star (meaning limited standing) to 4-star (world-class standing). Universities can also receive a 2-star rating (denoting international standing) or 3-star (internationally excellent).

At the RISG-hosted Research and Innovation Dialogue in September 2023, Professor Brink, who led a session on Research Impact, shared the UGC’s definition of societal research impact for the RAE. He said:

“Impact is defined as the demonstrable contributions, beneficial effects, valuable changes or advantages that [research and/or teaching] qualitatively bring to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, and that are beyond academia.”

“Impact in this context includes, but is not limited to:

  • Positive effects on, constructive changes or benefits to the activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding, of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals; or
  • The reduction or prevention of harm, risk, cost or other negative effects.”

Professor Brink also demonstrated how academic work can translate into tangible or intangible outcomes:

  • Impacts on the economy or industry – This could be a spin-out company or new business created, established its viability or generated revenue or profits.
  • Impacts on the environment – This could be a change in practices or policies affecting biodiversity.
  • Impacts on health and wellbeing – This could be decisions by a health service or regulatory authority informed by research.
  • Impacts on public policy and services – This could be policy or public debate stimulated or informed by research evidence.
  • Impacts on quality of life and welfare – This could include effective measures adopted in alleviating the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment or inequality.
  • Impacts on education and public understanding of art and science – Changes in school curriculum or uplifting of communities through art, performance or dance.

A notable champion of socially responsive universities, Professor Brink authored The Soul of a University – Why Excellence is Not Enough (2018) – a book that challenges universities to introspect and pursue a social purpose, way beyond teaching. He deepens this discourse in The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa (2020), a sequel to the 2018 book.

He was a keynote speaker at USAf’s Higher Education Conference in 2019, that was themed The Engaged University. USAf invited him back to provide thought leadership in The Responsive University breakaway session within the Higher Education Conference of 2021.

Evaluation and selection

Universities can submit up to three of their most compelling impact case studies demonstrating how they have addressed and solved societal challenges. Each case study should showcase a specific initiative, project, or programme that has had a notable positive impact on society.

USAf will involve a panel of experts from various disciplines to review the submissions based on the clarity of impact, innovation, and significance to society. The selected case studies will be featured on the USAf website as a showcase to national and international readership. It is envisaged that these narratives will illustrate systemic strengths of South Africa’s universities, potentially attracting meaningful local and international partnerships.

Furthermore, top case studies could be presented at the upcoming 3rd USAf Higher Education Conference in October.

Professor Mayekiso specified that these case studies ought to provide evidence of change already achieved and not anticipated. “We look forward to receiving these fascinating narratives to factually demonstrate the value of our universities to the South African society,” she concluded.

Download the Guidelines for the selection of the case studies here.
Submissions are to be sent to by Friday, 14 June 2024.
For inquiries, email Ms Nompumelelo Khuluse:

Nqobile Tembe is the Marketing and Communication Consultant for USAf’s Advancing Early Career Researchers and Scholars (AECRS) Programme.