The Research and Innovation Strategy Group endorses an action plan drawn from the Higher Education Conference of 2021

Published On: 17 June 2022|

Universities South Africa’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group has endorsed a list of actions and initiatives to focus on in 2022 and beyond, stemming from the recommendations of the 2nd Higher Education Conference of October 2021. At their second meeting for the year on 9 June, members of the Group elected a four-member task team to dissect this list of actions and draw a workable implementation programme.

In the action plan, the most dominant theme is collaboration amongst universities. Recognising the benefit, for institutions and society, of working together to advance research and strengthen innovation, the RISG will advocate greater collaboration between universities nationally, in the region and globally and encourage student and staff mobility across systems for the cross-pollination of ideas and collective resolution of global challenges.

In the context of CoVID-19, the RISG, chaired by Professor Thoko Mayekiso (left), who is also the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga, will investigate in detail, the pandemic’s impact on research practices within institutions. This will include identifying best practices and innovations inspired by the pandemic and exploring viable mechanisms to replicate those practices across the system. The issue of research funding also received much attention during the Higher Education Conference. In collaboration with USAf’s Funding Strategy Group, the RISG will explore alternative funding mechanisms available to universities, acknowledging South Africa’s low research funding base, including the funding crisis faced by the National Research Foundation (NRF).

At the Higher Education Conference, delegates acknowledged that research is of little use if its findings and value are not shared publicly for societal understanding. The RISG will examine multiple ways to make research findings more accessible to the public.

The Group will also dedicate efforts to entrench the principle of the Engaged University by championing engaged science and scholarship, which requires more meaningful collaboration with society in research during all research processes, such as design, resourcing, implementation and, ultimately, in information sharing on findings and facilitation of mutual appreciation for research benefits.

Alongside championing engaged research, the RISG will invest more effort in promoting research quality across the system. To that end, the Group will review current research incentives to shift their emphasis from research quantity to quality, and ensure a shared appreciation of the changing focus across the system.

Finally, in its Plan of action to embed societal impact in universities’ research endeavours, the RISG will work closely with the NRF to disseminate information and facilitate understanding across the system, of the research impact criteria developed by the NRF. In 2021, the NRF decided to assess new research proposals for their potential societaland knowledge impact as part of the criteria informing research funding decisions.

According to the NRF, impact in those two respects is described as “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 long-term.”[i]

Stakeholder updates from the sector

The 9 June meeting of the RISG also saw members receiving updates from other stakeholders, on matters of common interest in the higher education sector. From the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), Mr Bheki Hadebe, Director: High-End Skills, informed the Group that the Department would be winding up stakeholder consultations on the Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Decadal Plan during the coming months of July, and August. Following the consultations, the Plan would be tabled to the management committee of the Forum of South Africa’s Directors-General (FOSAD) before being presented to Cabinet for final approval. The second convening of the Inter-Ministerial Council (IMC) is planned for November.

Mr Bheki Hadebe also mentioned that the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation had approved the public release of the National PhD Tracer study report.  The study traced the mobility, career paths and other attributes of about 16 000 PhD graduates who graduated from South African universities between 2002 and 2018.  The study was commissioned by the DSI, project-managed by the Water Research Commission and conducted by the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (ScISTIP) at Stellenbosch University. Mr Hadebe said the DSI was finalising the branding of the report for public release and however committed to making the un-branded report available to RISG members with a caution that they make the necessary acknowledgements in its usage (DSI study, project managed by the WRC and conducted by SciSTIP/CREST).

From the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), Professor Nithaya Chetty, Dean of Science at the institution, shared information on Wits’ new initiative seeking to nurture entrepreneurial thinking to create more innovative graduates, especially at the doctoral level — while maintaining the highest levels of academic scholarship and critical thinking (more on this in a separate report.)

In addition to the updates above, the RISG members also heard from the Chief Executive Officer of the South African National Library and Information Consortium (SANLiC), Mr Glenn Truran, on the progress made to date in steering South Africa towards Open Access to global academic journals.

From the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA), the President, Professor Andrew Bailey, explained measures being undertaken by his organisation to professionalise portfolios in research administration for better career pathing in distinct research management areas.

USAf also presented its own updates as Ms Janet van Rhyn, USAf’s Project Manager for Operations and Sector Support, briefed the RISG members on the 5th South Africa-Japanese Universities (SAJU) Forum conference coming up from 28-29 July, that will be hosted as an online event with Japanese counterparts.  Dr Linda Meyer, USAf’s Director: Operations and Sector Support, in turn, appraised the members of the R1billion fundraising milestone that is on track to be reached in September 2022 towards student bursaries and historical debt.

Professor Thoko Mayekiso, Chairperson of RISG, expressed her appreciation at all the presentations and congratulated Dr Meyer for her on-going fundraising efforts.  The meeting on 9 June was the second of three annual meetings of the RISG. The last meeting for the year will be held in October and will be a joint meeting with the Deputy Vice-Chancellors: Research.

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communication.

[i] NRF 2021.  NRF Framework to advance the societal and knowledge impact of research.  Accessible via:  NRF-Framework-to-Advance-the-Societal-and-Knowledge-Impact-of-Research.pdf