In an uncertain and rapidly changing world, research universities play a critical role in building a better future

Higher education is under pressure, but universities have a crucial role to play in helping society ‘build back better’ from Covid-19 and other existential challenges.

By Wim De Villiers, 21 Mar 2022

Professor Wim de Villiers is the rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University. He also leads the finance and investment committee of Universities South Africa.

For more than two years, the world has been battling one of the worst pandemics ever experienced by humankind. Officially, more than six million people have died of Covid-19 so far, but the real death rate could be three times as high, researchers estimate in a recent study published in The Lancet.

'The full impact of the pandemic has been much greater than what is indicated,' they argue with reference to excess mortality.

Their words hold true in other ways. Hardly any aspect of our existence has escaped the impact of Covid-19.

'The coronavirus pandemic is the largest social and economic shock of our lifetime. The rapid spread of this virus around the world and the economic devastation it has left in its wake is unlike anything we have seen before,' a consortium of 30 social science researchers from five South African universities wrote in their introduction to the National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, conducted locally in 2020 and 2021.

Among the negative impacts of Covid-19 that they have been documenting in South Africa have been significant increases in unemployment, food insecurity and learning losses at school level.

Universities have been affected as well. In its Annual Performance Plan 2021/22, the Department of Higher Education and Training points out that the 'economic impact of Covid-19 on the sustainability of the system is likely to come from all quarters — cuts in baseline funding through subsidies and transfers, cuts in research funding from government… [and] funding from donors and other sources'.

Research Professional reported in December that South Africa’s budget for higher education remains extremely tight due to the pandemic and the country’s battered economy. Last year, a shortfall of R6-billion in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme had to be funded by a R2.5-billion cut to university subsidies and grants. And in February, the National Research Foundation had its budget allocation cut by 9% in nominal terms.

So, higher education is under pressure, and yet we have a crucial role to play in helping society 'build back better' from Covid-19 — a term that refers not only to the restoration of what we lost during the pandemic and the revitalisation of the economy but also to reducing the risk posed by disasters and shocks still to come.

Back in 1938, the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that 'the task of a university is the creation of the future'. Explaining how that would work, he said: 'The gift the university has to offer is the one of imagination… the lighted torch which passes from hand to hand.'

On the one hand, this relates to the learning and teaching mandate of higher education. Universities help transform individuals — and through them, society at large — by recognising and developing human potential.

But universities are also places of research, which is also a transformative activity with the power to change the world. Society is looking to universities to help manage highly complex problems comprised of interwoven challenges in such areas as health, the environment, conflict management, water, food security, sustainable energy and social cohesion.

And we are best placed to deliver creative and innovative solutions when we work together. According to the Department of Science and Innovation, the 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology introduced the concept of the national system of innovation, a set of interacting organisations and policies through which South Africa creates, acquires, diffuses and puts into practice new knowledge to help achieve individual and collective goals.

The thinking was that a coordinated and efficient national system of innovation would help the country achieve its national development priorities by enabling all South Africans to enjoy the economic, socio-political and intellectual benefits of science, technology and innovation — key factors identified in the National Development Plan as primary drivers of economic growth, job creation and socioeconomic reform.

At Stellenbosch University, we took a bold step towards cooperation across the silos that traditionally divide various academic disciplines in 2019 with the establishment of our School for Data Science and Computational Thinking — a structure spanning all 10 of our faculties with multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration.

Last year, Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the world-renowned bioinformatician famous for identifying new variants of Covid-19, joined the school as a professor of bioinformatics, and from the outset collaborated closely with colleagues in our Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and our Faculty of Science. Together, they set up our Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (Ceri), to provide genetic sequencing for the development and evaluation of vaccine therapies.

Ceri is based in the new Biomedical Research Institute(BMRI) on our Tygerberg campus, which is one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world. It is the single largest infrastructure investment by our university in recent years and cost more than R1.3-billion to construct and is earmarked to host more than 1,000 multidisciplinary researchers from all over Africa and dozens of world-class research groups.

Even amidst the funding squeeze in higher education, the national Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) contributed R300-million towards this advanced and sophisticated facility, so I am glad to report that these investments are already paying dividends — not only in the form of scientific outputs but also by empowering researchers from all over our continent and the rest of the world with opportunities to collaborate in the generation of relevant and reliable knowledge.

The DSI points out that high end, innovative human capital is key to the development of a globally competitive, expanded and transformed national system of innovation that is responsive to South Africa’s developmental needs, in line with the imperatives articulated in the 2019 White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation.

So, we are proud that Stellenbosch University has awarded an incredible 14,365 master’s degrees and 2,831 doctorates in the past 10 years, of which nearly half went to generically black recipients. This is one of how we are helping to create a transformed future — in line with the emphasis in the 2019 White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation on the themes of inclusivity, transformation and partnerships.

Ceri and the BMRI are attracting considerable attention. In January, President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the facilities, and at a news conference afterwards emphasised the formidable skills and capabilities of our scientists and researchers in genomic surveillance. This puts us at the centre of the worldwide response to new Covid variants, while also enabling us to spearhead the genomic revolution in our country and on the rest of the continent.

In February, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also visited Ceri and the BMRI. He explained that in April last year the WHO issued a call for expressions of interest for establishing a technology transfer hub for mRNA vaccines.

The turnout of applications was high, but South Africa was chosen and the hub was established here as a partnership between WHO, Afrigen Biologics, the Biologicals and Vaccines Institute of Southern Africa (Biovac), the South African Medical Research Council, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Medicines Patent Pool.

This initiative is already producing results, with Afrigen’s announcement last month that it had produced its own mRNA vaccine, based on publicly available information about the composition of an existing vaccine. And the mRNA technology is not just for Covid. It will be for malaria, TB and HIV — 'It will be a game changer,' Tedros said.

He added: 'The reason South Africa was chosen was not only because of Afrigen and Biovac but because of the presence of Stellenbosch University, the Biomedical Research Institute, Ceri and the rest of the systems that can support it. We believe the capacity we have in this country will make the project successful, and the only option is success.'

This is a huge compliment, which we see as confirmation that we are on the right track with our conviction that knowledge should be harnessed in the service of society. Ceri and the BMRI show that expertise on the African continent is being used for this goal.

Over the past few years, our scientific expertise and increased investment in world-leading technologies have consistently attracted significant funding for transformative research projects with a global impact. These range from HIV-Aids, childhood tuberculosis and cancer research, to data science and computational thinking as well as a host of partnership projects with other leading universities, partners and agencies.

The array of Covid-related research that emanated from Stellenbosch University over the past two years contributed extensively to the body of knowledge that enhanced the understanding and improved clinical treatment of the disease over a wide front.

Going forward, there can be no doubt that the contributions of South Africa’s scientists and researchers, companies, agencies and authorities will help make our country, continent and the rest of the world a better place. 'Building better back' underpins our entire scientific and research endeavour, helping to create a transformed future.

News date: 2022-03-21


KRISP has been created by the coordinated effort of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) and the South African Medical Research Countil (SAMRC).

Location: K-RITH Tower Building
Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, UKZN
719 Umbilo Road, Durban, South Africa.
Director: Prof. Tulio de Oliveira