The QS World University Rankings indicate that the University of Johannesburg is now ranked second nationally and on the continent. In the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, UJ is now ranked first in South Africa and second in Africa.

There have been murmurings in South Africa as to whether universities are following the destructive paths of state-owned enterprises.

The next few days mark my last stretch as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg (UJ). A valuable exercise in recent months has been to take stock of the achievements and milestones we have made in recent years, especially to answer whether universities in South Africa are on a destructive path.

On Thursday, 23 February, I was hosted by the School of Government to reflect on my tenure and the achievements UJ has made in a relatively short time.

In 2018, as I stepped onto the podium for my inaugural address, I delivered a long list of promises. I had a bold vision that, to some, seemed impossible. Yet, it was through a deliberate and purposeful strategy that UJ could transform into the institution I had envisioned.

Long before my tenure as Vice-Chancellor of UJ, innovation had been ingrained in the DNA of this institution. This is Ihron Rensburg’s legacy. During his tenure, the institution became the national standard bearer for transformation, equity, access, pan-Africanism and global excellence. His leadership laid solid foundations for UJ’s trajectory.

When I embarked on this journey, I set out a vision of my interpretation of the direction of the university. One could call it an annotation of the strategic plan. In the last five years, as the plans unfolded, I found that many of the projects and programmes of activities gained momentum and morphed into larger endeavours that have made this university worthy of our many accolades.

We have emerged as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) university and have a slew of rankings and research metrics that confirm our stature.

Most notably, the QS World University Rankings indicated that UJ is now ranked second nationally and on the continent. In the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, UJ is now ranked first in South Africa and second in Africa.

Additionally, UJ is one of the leading universities in the research sphere. In terms of research output, as measured by UJ’s scholarly output indexed in the global Scopus publication and citation database, UJ continues to perform ahead of other South African higher education institutions on key performance indicators.

Therefore, some universities are not on a destructive path, and in the case of UJ, the critical question is how have we achieved all this. There were 15 objectives that informed our strategy.

Firstly, it was imperative to get the right people. In our recruiting strategy, we emphasised the need for academic leaders, international staff, students, and distinguished visitors. Our distinguished visiting appointments included Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka.

In addition, we have had a distinct focus on academic development and support. In 2017, 48% of UJ’s academic staff had PhDs, compared to 56.6% in 2022. Similarly, the number of National Research Foundation (NRF) rated researchers grew from 179 in 2017 to 274 in 2022 — a rise of 53%.

Secondly, we built a financial war chest alongside key stakeholders. For instance, UJ annually spends over R10-million on the student meal assistance programme. This assists approximately 4,600 students monthly. We have also raised close to R2-billion since 2016 to assist missing middle students. In addition, since 2009, UJ has made R20-million available yearly to assist financially needy students with their registration fees. This year, we launched the Double Our Future Impact Campaign, which aims to help as many as 10,000 students, and so far, we have raised R3-million

Thirdly, we built internal capacity. I have overseen the establishment of institutes such as the Institute for Intelligent Systems (IIS), a research institute for systems intelligence, continuous engineering and cognitive computing in Africa; the Institute for the Future of Knowledge (IFK), which serves as a cross-disciplinary think tank; and most recently, the National Artificial Intelligence Institute in conjunction with the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) and the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), among other initiatives.

Fourthly, we focused on building infrastructure. We purchased and financed two additional campuses, Devland Campus and Media24 Park (now called JBS Park) and completed the Soweto Residence Complex. Studies indicate that strong infrastructure leads to better teaching and learning outcomes while improving the throughput rate.

Fifthly, we approached the university’s functions with a sustainable mindset. Recently, we launched a fleet of electric buses. These electric buses produce much lower carbon emissions yet offer a smooth ride even on steep routes. Additionally, we have shifted 15% of our energy to renewable sources through the extensive installation of solar panels. Our focus on achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs) has been entrenched in our operations.

Sixthly, we have built a locally relevant organisation but with an international outlook. We emphasised internationalisation and encouraged collaboration. For instance, the Africa by Bus project allows students to explore southern African countries’ cultures and traditions, which speaks directly to our Pan-African vision.

Seventhly, we cultivated a learning culture that reads and writes. The introduction of the monthly Vice-Chancellor’s Reading Club and later the Chair of Council’s Reading Club have instilled this culture at UJ. These groups are widely open and encourage reading and a spirit of debate and discussion.

Eighthly, it was vital for me to lead by example. It was not enough to launch the various reading clubs. I had to demonstrate that I was writing and reading consistently. A phrase I have often repeated is that those who do not read cannot lead. The idea behind this notion is that we must all embark on a continuous learning journey at every tier.

Ninthly, I communicated constantly. I have written 24 books and over 300 papers in journals, proceedings and book chapters. I gave television and radio interviews about topics I wrote about, my areas of interest and current events. I sustained communication with staff and students through a weekly newsletter and stayed active on social media networks, providing an opportunity for engagement.

Tenthly, it was important for me to take my expertise outward. I worked with various stakeholders from government, industry and society. For instance, I helped develop the 4IR blueprints for the South African, Namibian and Rwandan governments. I was a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) committee that developed the ethical guidelines for using AI in healthcare. I was also instrumental in developing the international accord on open data for the International Council for Science (ICSU) in Paris.

Eleventh, we thought out of the box in our approach to teaching and learning and redefined the curriculum. This was done by introducing a compulsory artificial intelligence (AI) course for all students, the introduction of the Bachelor of Arts in Politics, Economics and Technology (PET) and various postgraduate programmes on AI. Additionally, we ensured that all our courses were infused with technology and had a greater multi-disciplinary approach. Our emphasis has informed this shift on 4IR. As a result, there have been 48 staff working in 4IR recruited in the last five years.

Twelfth, there was no room for the crises we experienced to become a “permacrisis”. In my first few months in office, I crafted a continuity plan. This informed much of the university’s response to the pandemic. As an institution, we were equipped to deal with this crisis as we had analysed and pivoted solutions for every eventuality. Additionally, we have ensured strong governance structures and accountability at every tier.

Thirteenth, I was not afraid to take tough decisions. Despite the risk of backlash and waning popularity, my focus was ensuring that the university could fulfil its mandate with an emphasis on excellence. I introduced new policies, such as only allowing students who have passed all their courses and are on a full course load to participate in the student representative council (SRC). I was resolute in my priorities and would not waiver on aspects central to our core function.

Fourteenth, UJ hosted prominent events. For instance, we hosted the leadership meeting with the African Union (AU) and the Nelson Mandela Lecture. We invited dynamic academics, thought leaders, captains of industry and government officials to speak to our students and staff.

Finally, successful examples in other nations are needed to guide us. For instance, the National AI Institute was in part informed by trips to Silicon Valley and the Chinese equivalent, Zhongguancun, attended by various stakeholders in the sector. I encouraged diverse perspectives and analysed successful models that would make sense for our institution. Once again, the emphasis was on continuous learning.

This is how UJ has risen to feats unknown in recent years. Although this marks the end of this chapter, these are legacy projects with longevity. Importantly, none of this was done in a silo but as an institution. I was fortunate to have an institution with a strong contingent that could seamlessly roll out my vision.

My successors now inherit an institution that has broken boundaries and charted a unique path in its relatively short history.

As William Shakespeare once said, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” UJ is an example of the confluence of all three.


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the outgoing Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the incoming United Nations Under-Secretary-General and a Rector of the UN University. 

This opinion article first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 23 February 2023. The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.